AAC (Alternative and Augmentative Communication) devices are becoming more and more prevalent in the lives of students with complex communication needs. Students who in the past would have had no way to communicate now have a device full of words that they can use to express themselves. The problem is that too often students are given these devices and not taught how to use them, leading to them getting left in backpacks, in desks and at home.
In teaching our students to communicate, our greatest focus should be on core vocabulary words. Core words are the most common words we use everyday, that serve a variety of communicative purposes. These are typically verbs, adjectives, prepositions and pronouns, like “go”, “stop", “more", “all done”, “get”, “help”, “in”, “out” and “you”. Focusing on these words will give our students the greatest opportunity to communicate a variety of intents and variety of information.
Part of our job as speech-language pathologists is to train families, teachers, staff and anyone who interacts with that child in using the child’s communication device with them to promote generalization. We’ve all seen the statistic:
“The average 18-month-old has been exposed to 4,380 hours of oral language at a rate of 8 hours/day from birth. A child who has a communication system (AAC) and receives speech/language therapy 2 times/week for 20-30 minutes will reach the same amount of language exposure (in their AAC language) in 84 years. Jane Korsten, SLP”
We don’t have 84 years to teach our students, so it is imperative that as SLPs we implement the evidence based teaching principles and teach them to our families. Below are the 4 strategies that are the principles of teaching AAC. Consistently utilizing them in your own practice and teaching them to families will result in students gaining the most independence in their ability to communicate.
- Model, model, model! - I really can’t emphasize this enough. The way to get our students to learn that their AAC device is their voice is to make it your voice. Show them how you would use their device and they will watch and learn. Model core vocabulary words without expecting the student to do anything and without requiring anything of them. Show them that communication is fun and that you enjoy using their device to express yourself.
- Aided Language Stimulation - Aided language stimulation is where you provide input for the child by talking while also using core words on the students device. You may emphasize the core word to really draw attention to it. When getting ready to return to class you might say “let’s GO” and press go on the student’s device.
- Wait Time - Wait time. The most challenging thing to do. We surely catch all of ourselves jumping in after 2 seconds to show the student where the word is on their device or express what we want to express. We need to remember that our students often have longer processing times than we do and as painful as it may feel, counting to 10 in your head is really a good practice to give students an opportunity to say what they want to say. 10 seconds is a good practice, but you know your students better than anyone and some students may need even more than 10 seconds to process. Use your clinical judgement in determining how long students need to process.
- Create opportunities - Make communication fun! My AAC sessions are the best part of my day because I get to do the most fun activities and act completely silly, which is a rare opportunity as an adult! Whether it be spraying shaving cream to make a marbled painting, making cupcakes in the microwave, making slime or playing a game, I always have fun with my AAC students. Modeling and using aided language stimulation while you’re having fun has such a strong impact on a student’s willingness to communicate and learning of new words. Communication should NEVER be work. If you catch yourself saying “touch stop” or “press more”, it’s becoming more of a search and find task and the meaning of the words are lost. However, if you’re pouring glitter and say “what do we need!”, you’re giving the student the opportunity to press “more” in a way that is meaningful and fun.
Overall, the most important point is that communication should be fun and teaching a student to use their device can not only be the responsibility of the speech therapist but must be a responsibility of all of the child’s communication partners.
Author: Alexandra Mazza, M.S., CCC-SLP