Presuming competence also means that there are no prerequisite skills or age requirements to start using AAC.

When you start your AAC journey, the first step is presuming competence.

“Start by presuming that your client is a learner on his/her way to developing competence. Good intervention, consistent language models, the right tools, and plenty of practice will move them along the journey toward improved communication. It’s important that, as clinicians, we truly believe that. Yes, your clients may be impaired, perhaps significantly so, but they will certainly know if you don’t believe in their abilities. Presume competence.” Carole Zangari

Presuming competence for AAC users is based on two principles. These apply to all human beings, regardless of diagnosis or degree of difference from the typically developing norm:

  1. Everyone has something to say
  2. Everyone can learn

Everyone has something to say

Every person, regardless of how they appear to the outside observer, has a unique and rich inner life. This life is full of feelings, observations, preferences, opinions, stories, memories, and dreams. Whether or not a person has the means to express his or her inner life in an understandable and consistent way, it is real and it is there. Our goal should be to allow every AAC user to express his or her inner life in a way that is accessible to the user and understandable to the person listening. This rich inner life extends beyond just requesting. It includes all the many reasons people communicate with each other.

Everyone can learn

When a person is not able to communicate using speech, we can’t have accurate knowledge of that person’s ability to understand and use language. Because we just don’t know the person’s skills or potential, we make the least dangerous assumption and presume competence. 

This does not mean, however, that we must presume that the person is already fully literate with age-appropriate receptive and expressive language skills. It means we don’t and can’t know what that person’s potential is until we provide him or her with accessible tools, and the training needed to use those tools. 

Everyone can learn and grow, given appropriate training and tools. This doesn’t mean that everyone can learn everything. You may never be a championship skier, but with appropriate instruction and practice and ski equipment that fits you properly, you can learn basic moves and become more skilled. But without skis and instruction, you will never realize your potential as a skier. It’s the same with communication for non-speaking people. Everyone has potential, but the right AAC system and effective instruction are needed before that potential can be revealed and realized.

Choosing an AAC system that presumes competence

How do these two principles - everyone has something to say, and everyone can learn - influence the AAC system and vocabulary we choose? How can we be sure to use a vocabulary that allows people to reveal and realize their potential?

Give them words

People with little or no speech are in a unique and vulnerable position. They literally can’t say what we don’t give them the words for. This is why we should choose a vocabulary gives access to as many words as possible. We just don’t know what someone who can’t speak will want to say when they’re given a voice with all the words.

In addition to a rich vocabulary, AAC users need access to the grammatical forms of the words in the AAC system. This includes plurals, possessives and verb endings. Research shows that AAC users have particular difficulty learning grammar. While there are a variety of possible causes for this, one clear issue is that of grammatical forms not being available on an AAC system. If they're not there, the AAC user won't be able to learn or use them!

Communicate for all the reasons

There are so many different reasons why people communicate. We often start with requesting when we teach AAC, because this feels like the easiest place to start. But there are so many other reasons that humans communicate to express their rich inner lives. If we’re presuming competence, we must presume that everyone needs access to all these reasons to communicate. If we don’t provide the words necessary, we’re blocking so much expression! 

Access to the alphabet

An AAC system should not only presume competence for learning a symbol-based communication system.  It should also presume competence for learning some level of literacy. The ability to spell independently can give total freedom of expression to an AAC user. He or she will no longer be dependent on a caregiver or therapist to add words to the AAC system. However, even if full literacy isn’t reachable, any degree of spelling is an asset. For example, being able to use initial letter sounds or invented spelling to express something that is not in the AAC vocabulary is an invaluable skill. An AAC system that presumes competence and the ability to learn should also give easy and full access to the alphabet! 

No prerequisites

As we are choosing the right AAC system for an AAC user, there should not be any prerequisites. AAC users should not have to demonstrate certain skills before they can be eligible to access AAC. AAC users are never too young or too old to start AAC. Presuming competence means an AAC user is given the tools and instruction they need to learn, regardless of diagnosis or degree of difference.

The next step

Presuming competence means we presume everyone is a unique individual with something to say.  Once we have done this, we can select a balanced AAC system that gives the AAC user the words they need. Everyone can learn. Everyone has something to say. But we won’t know what that is until give them the chance.

This article is just one in the Learn AAC series about “Setting up for AAC”.

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