Sunday, October 1, 2017

Switch Skills Resources

The world of assistive technology has come a long way since this blog started!  More and more often our students have the option for direct selection, the fastest way, on a communication system.  For many users options such as integrated conductive touch screens, head trackers, adapted joysticks and trackballs, and especially eye gaze tracking, have made switches less necessary in our field.

Still, switches have a place in our assistive technology tool kit.  For learners with access needs that preclude direct selection through any possible means our next option is usually switch access.  We tend to start with a single switch for cause and effect, yet few of our learners really need to learn cause and effect.  If the child drops something, catches her head under her headrest, or does anything else for the entertainment of it or to seek attention the she already understands cause and effect.  A few runs using a switch to turn on preferred music or a fun toy and you are ready to move on to other switch purposes.

At this point it is vital to begin with the end in mind.  What will the child ultimately use switches for?  If it is for communication, the most important thing we teach, then forego any extraneous steps when you look at a switch progression or heirarchy of skills.  Your student doesn't need to learn to press and hold or turn on and turn off if ultimately you are seeking the student pressing and releasing a switch as part of a switch scan.  Don't let these extra skills slow down communication access!  You can develop them later, or program the communication system to eliminate their need.

It will be important to decide if your student will be using a one or two switch scan, also called an automatic scan or a step scan.  In general an automatic or single switch scan requires to student to look and/or listen for the item needed and activate the switch with accurate timing for that item.  A step scan or two switch scan requires the learner to use one switch as a mover and one as a chooser.  With the mover switch the child progresses the scan and with the chooser he chooses the item he wants.  In essence this decision is about is the child or will the child be more accurate if asked to time an activation of a single switch or if asked to coordinate the movements of two switches without worries about timing.  It is important to work with your team on switch placement, type of switch and how switch use will be taught - with attention to keeping the end in mind.  Here are some resources that can be used:

Articles about Switch Use
Switch Use On Various Platforms
Paid Software, Subscriptions and Apps for Teaching Switch Use
Free Switch Activities Online or Download (Cause and Effect unless otherwise noted)
Create Your Own Switch Scanning Activities and use Sharing Sites
Switch and Switch Interface Vendors

Monday, September 18, 2017

When "Functional Skills" Aren't

In special education for children and young adults with significant disabilities we often assume that functional skills is our most important goal.  Yet, we often don't spend a whole lot of time thinking about what functional means or which skills are actually functional for our learners. This is the dictionary definition of functional:

func·tion·al
ˈfəNG(k)SH(ə)n(ə)l/
adjective
adjective: functional
  1. 1.
    of or having a special activity, purpose, or task; relating to the way in which something works or operates.
    "there are important functional differences between left and right brain"
    • (of a disease) affecting the operation, rather than the structure, of an organ.
      "functional diarrhea"
    • (of a mental illness) having no discernible organic cause.
      "functional psychosis"
  2. 2.
    designed to be practical and useful, rather than attractive.
    "she had assumed the apartment would be functional and simple"
    synonyms:practical, useful, utilitarian, utility, workaday, serviceable; More
    minimalist, plain, simple, basic, modest, unadorned, unostentatious, no-frills, without frills;
    impersonal, characterless, soulless, institutional, clinical
    "a small functional kitchen"
  3. 3.
    working or operating.
    "the museum will be fully functional from the opening of the festival"
    synonyms:working, in working order, functioning, in service, in use; More
    going, running, operative, operating, in operation, in commission, in action;
    informalup and running
    "the machine is now fully functional"
  4. 4.
    Mathematics
    relating to a variable quantity whose value depends on one or more other variables

In this definition, the part that applies to functional skills for our learners is "2. designed to be practical or useful." Functional skills should be practical and useful.  They should be skills our students will use over the course of their education and their lives. Often times these functional skills are futher broken down into activities of daily living/domestic skills, social skills, community skills, and self-determination.  Perhaps the best reference for functional skills I've ever used is the Syracuse Community Reference Curriculum. If you are looking for a good source for functional curriculum is is one place to turn.  Yet, it should never replace access to the general education curriculum.

Ironically, self-determination is often under emphasized in some functional skills curriculums.  Some such curriculums actually teach students skills that increase their likelihood to be abused or mistreated in addition to ignoring self-determination, for exaple curriculums that teach "accepting no" or "tolerating distress".  If a functional skills increases the likelihood of abuse or even just unhappiness as an adult it isn't actually functional.

When we are working with children who have developmental or intellectual disabilities but no additional physical or sensory needs it is easier to assess that child and design an educational program to teach skills which are practical and useful in addition to the general education curriculum.  This become more challenging when we are working with children with complex physical and/or sensory needs and/or complex communication needs.  Those children are much more difficult to assess and it is easy to fall into the trap of believing that just because a child cannot be assessed they are not capable of learning and progressing in the general education curriculum.  Over and over we hear stories these days of such children being underestimated and denied an education.  We need to ask ourselves, "if this student writes a book someday, what chapter do I want to be in?"

These students with complex bodies and communication needs may still need to be taught some practical and useful skills.  However, parts of the curriculum typically considered practical and useful/functional, such as hand washing, setting a table, or dressing cease to be practical and useful for some of these students.  Especially if our first response to physical and sensory challenges is turning to hand over hand methodology.  This is because some of our most complex students cannot physically do these tasks independently and we don't think about changing the activity instead of stepping in and forcing the child to participate physically.  It is, of course vital that these students be able to participate as fully as possible in these activities or alternatives to these activities.  A student who cannot wash his own hands need to be able to know when to ask to have his hands washed, ask to have his hands washed and participate as much as is needed.  He also needs to know to be sure those who care for him wash their hands and be able to request they do so.  A student who cannot physically set a table still needs to understand a table setting and know how to ask for table items they might need.  A child who cannot physically dress herself needs to be able to notice when she needs to change her clothes, choose clothes, and direct someone to find her clothes and assist her in dressing.  We need to analyze what would make each activity practical and useful for the child and then teach those skills.  However, none of these practical and useful skills and adaptations eliminates the needs for access to the general curriculum.

Some questions to ask ourselves about functional skills:
1) Are we teaching "functional skills" because we have never considered teaching the general education curriculum to this student?  For 99% of children in our schools the general education is functional.  Learning to read, write, do mathematics, learn from what we read and understand our history, society and world around us is functional.  These skills will allow typical children to understand and participate in their own lives.  Learning these skills is also functional for our learners with very significant disabilities.  The importance of what is taught doesn't disappear because our learners have complex needs.  Learning about Einstein means the child, typical or disabled, has a shared understanding of a scientist and political figure.  It means a child can understand a reference to Einstein such as, "It doesn't take an Einstein."  Learning the general education curriculum gives the child a schema to understanding.  In terms of neurology learning complex ideas such as those found in the general education curriculum  create news neuropathways which can then be reused and strengthened.  It gives the child a social currency that matches typical peers.  Have we really considered teaching general education content to our kids?  This is an area where those of us in the field of education for children with severe or multiple disabilities should take our cues from teachers of the blind and visually impaired.  Such teachers do not see a functional skills curriculum as a replacement for an academic curriculum, they see it as an extension of the general educational curriculum.  They call this the Expanded Core Curriculum

2)  Are we teaching literacy, the ultimate "functional skill"?  We use literacy skills all day everyday.  We wake up, check our phones for texts and the news - reading those things.  We read the buttons on the remote, the coffee maker and go through our morning routines.  We write a note to partner or child.  We read the messages on signs on the way to work.  Not just the road signs, but all the signs.  Here in Massachusetts the latest LED road sign messages have been "Use your blinkah!"  Even if you aren't the driver that's fun.  Maybe you see a sign for sale on something you love, or a potluck dinner or an upcoming civil event - my town just had a Yankee Doodle Parade.  How can our kids beg mom to go to the parade if they can't read the sign about it? Once we get to work we might read a bulletin board.  We might check our email.  And we aren't even at 9 am yet! Nothing is more functional, nothing is more of a life skill, than literacy.  By this I do not mean community signs and environmental print.  That isn't literacy.  Literacy is the ability to encode and decode words.  If you can encode and decode words you can read community signs and environmental print, these skills are gained through literacy.  Literacy is also a civil rights issue.  It always has been.  One of the ways one group of people exerts oppressive power on another group is to bar the teaching of literacy.  In the case of our students it is more a lack of expectation for our students, a lack of knowledge on now to do it and, to some degree, neglect.  I was tempted to say benign neglect, but it isn't benign.  It is malignant to not be taught literacy.  It is disenfranchising.  If all children except those with disabilities are taught how to read that is discrimination.  Maybe some of our kids will age out of school at 21 and they won't know how to read, but it should never be because we didn't try teach them every single day they were at school!  
 4)  Is this student capable of physically doing this "functional" task independently? If not, is working on an unattainable skill the best use of the time this student should be spending time learning?  Is it practical and useful for the child to spend time working on something they will not physically accomplish?  For example, if you have a student who is physically not able to hang up her coat because of her physical challenges should a portion of each day be spend forcing the child to hang up her coat via hand over hand methodologies.  Would her time be better spent working on some of the other skills that are typically being used during arrival or coming in from recess?  Perhaps she could be focusing on socializing with peers during the transition.  Perhaps her time would be better spent learning to direct someone else to hang her coat and put away her bag or take out her notebook.  

5) How does this functional activity teach communication skills?  Communication is the most vital skill we teach to children with multiple disabilities and complex communication needs.  It is possible to incorporate true, child generated communication into every single activity we do in schools, from functional skills to the general education curriculum.  True, child generated communication is not activating a voice output switch with a pre-recorded message that the child had no part in creating. A fact of communication is that your partner doesn't know what you are going to say!  Switches can't do this, in fact sometimes when we use voice output switches it is sometimes the child who doesn't know what she is going to say!  That is so backwards! Every student should have access to a robust communication system.  Communication partners should be using those systems to speak to the child every time they speak to the child.  We should be targeting vocabulary and communication skills at one step beyond what the child can currently do.  Making every activity a communication activity is a quick way to make a curriculum functional.




Saturday, June 3, 2017

#seemeseemyaac challenge video

This past week in the Facebook group AAC through Motivate, Model, Move Out of the Way we held a challenge for folks to post one picture each day of AAC users with their AAC systems "in the wild" (in everyday use, preferably out in the world). It was an overwhelming success with hundreds and hundreds of pictures posted from around the world! Posts included some in Dutch, Norwegian, French and Spanish as well as English! The above video is the "long cut" and this is the "short cut".

You can see pictures from the campaign by searching for #seemeseemyaac on Facebook and other social media platforms. The campaign was such a success that another challenge is being planned for July!

Meanwhile, #seemeseemyaac is an ongoing event! Post pictures of your AAC users "in the wild" and add the #seemeseemyaac and join in the fun and inspiration!

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Just Talking To Myself, Don't Mind Me.

Teaching Internal Dialogue to AAC Users with Complex Needs



 We all hold ongoing conversations with ourselves. We use self-talk to:
  • Regulate our emotions (take a deep breathe, it must just be drive like a jerk day) 
  • Motivate ourselves (I got this!) 
  • Scold ourselves (Put down your phone and talk to people!) 
  • Explain things to ourselves (He probably meant that as a joke...) 
  • Help us with planning (if I leave at 3:30 I can run to the store before I pick him up at karate.) 
  • Remind ourselves (The radio just said rain tomorrow, put the umbrella by the door.) 
  • Work through fear or anxiety (Maybe my boss just wants this meeting on a Friday afternoon to be nice to me?)
  • To manage pain (I'm ok, the Advil will kick in soon and this headache will calm down.) 
  • And so much more!
Dory using positive self-talk

But what happens to our student who do no have the language skills for an internal dialog or who use AAC to communicate but have not developed the skills to use language for self-talk? Especially if those students have issues with anxiety, regulating their emotions, self-soothing or executive functions?

All too often what happens is we do not realize that part of their struggles are because they do not have the ability to hold internal dialogues and we turn towards behavioral interventions that might help in the short term but do not develop the vital skill of self-talk. We stop the problem in the moment (maybe) but don't stop future problems.

We focus on the functions of AAC in our classrooms all the time, those from Janice Light's research:

  1. Meeting wants and needs 
  2. Transferring information 
  3. Social closeness 
  4. Social etiquette 
But do we focus on the fifth, and just as vital function added by Buekleman and Miranda? Internal dialogue (aka self-talk)?

Focusing on internal dialogue and teaching it with as much  attention as we teach the other four functions is vital for AAC users. I always think about my verbal students who had Down Syndrome as my models for what self-talk looks like.

My student, Cory (now in his 30s!), taught me so much about self talk and self
regulation. When he was working at his desk he would stop and look around and then say aloud, but to himself, "back to work, Cor!" Or if he was in the hall and started to run he would say, "walk in the hall, Cor" and return to walking. He used self-talk for other things too. When he was very angry at me for insisting on things like doing work or follow rules he might say, "the Power Rangers are going to get her". Which was fair warning that he was upset and I should back off but wasn't meant for me, it was meant for himself, his internal dialogue was specific to his needs, if the Power Rangers were going to get me he was free to calm down. By the time he was 14 he didn't need to rely on the Power Rangers as often and could use other self talk like, "you can do this, Cor" or "I'm the man!" Cory had developed the vital skills of internal dialogue. But how do we do that for children and others who use AAC and have complex communication needs?

Well, we teach it the same way we do the rest of AAC use. We presume possibility and set high and meaningful expectations. We provide access to core words, salient
auxiliary words (fringe) and stored, quick phrases and sentences for times that often repeat or do not allow enough time to make a message. Basically, a robust communication system. We use aided language input/modeling to connect what we want to teach to what is happening in a natural setting and we do so intensively over long periods of time. We use structured lessons, games and activities with adapted materials for direct instruction. We provide visual supports. We use video modeling, including contextual video modeling, self video modeling and modeling by highly preferred people or even puppets as appropriate for our learner.

 At first self talk will likely be pre-programmed phrases for our complex communicators, especially those with intellectual or developmental disabilities as part of the complexities. Though some may be able to create self-talk messages in the moment, possibly with coaching.

 Choosing and Creating Self-Talk Messages

  • Observe your student closely and connect with parents and other stakeholders to determine situations when self-talk might be useful to the child. Does she have trouble at transitions? Does he get anxious when other people are too close? Knowing which situations might be relieved by the ability to self-talk while help you choose the messages needed. 
  • Consider if there is anything that is said that calms or assists the child during these times. Do you repeat, "you're ok" or "safe body"? If so, these phrases will be useful to turn into positive, self-talk statements on the child's AAC system. 
  • Watch the child and look for the cues and body language you can teach him to recognize in himself for when he needs to use self-talk. Take note of these for later. 
  • Seek the input of the child! This is vital! When he or she is calm and focused talk about what sorts of messages he or she wants to talk to himself. Offer choices based on reactions to the conversation. Allow them to select from different phrasing of the same messages when it is time to program, for example, "Do you want it to say, 'I can have a safe body', 'Look at my safe body', 'I am calm and safe' or something else? The more input you have and take into account the more successful the self-talk message may be. 
  • Chose and program the self-talk statements. Some examples: 
  • I can have safe hands I can wait I am ok I can calm down I am just so excited (or I am excited) I can take a deep breath I can count to three (or five or ten) I can have a calm body It is ok to need help I am ok when I make a mistake 
  •  Consider how immediate the needs will be for these messages. Then decide, with the child, how and where to put them in the AAC system. A child who is reminding herself to have a safe body may not be able to combine words to make a sentence or to navigate multiple levels of a communicate system to get to her self-talk messages. Some children may need, at least at first, to have some of the valuable real estate of the home/main/top page be taken up with self-talk messages. Other children may be ok with getting to quick phrases/quick fire or social pragmatic pages to use these messages. You might need to use some trial and error to decide where the messages go and how to set them up. Remember teaching self-talk doesn't eliminate the need for other interventions should challenging behaviors be problematic. It is another tool in the tool box, and likely a longer term intervention. 
 Teaching Use of Self-Talk Messages
Self-Talk in top right 

  •  Ask explained above, use all of the teaching tools you use for teaching each of the communicative functions. 
  •  Model self-talk verbally and using the child's communication system both in reference to yourself and the child - combine it with modeling self-advocacy if needed For example if you spill something you might verbally say, "it makes me upset that I spilled that. But I can stay calm. I am ok." While modeling self-talk buttons that say "I can stay calm" and "I am ok" Or you notice your student is starting to get agitated. So you verbally say, "I see you making fist and bouncing in your chair. You can tell yourself, 'I am ok' and the you can say, "I need a break". 
  •  Create social stories for situations that cause anxiety, dysregulation, etc which include the same self-talk messages that are in the child's talker. Some self-talk messages I have created social stories for in the past include, "I can wait", "I can have safe hands", "I can calm down", "I am ok when other people are upset". Read these frequently, especial during calmer times. Refer to the story as needed. If possible have the stories in a format the child can access independently, such as in the Pictello app on their leisure iPad or on their high tech eye gaze device. 
  •  Continue to refine the messages and re-teach them as needed. 
  •  Celebrate with gusto when your child uses these messages for self-talk. Use descriptive feedback while praising the child, "I heard your tell your self, 'I can wait' and then you waited! Fantastic! Here is a big hug!" 
 Pairing Self-Talk Messages with Self Advocacy Messages

  •  Once the child has used internal dialogue to attempt to regulate they need a way to self advocate. 
  •  Advocacy messages can be a bit deeper in the book or device as the hope is they are used once calm. These are messages directed towards others not the self. Hopefully, caregivers were listening when then internal dialogue messages were used and is ready to help guide the self-advocacy process. 
  •  Messages can include: 
    • Give me some space, so we can all be safe 
    • Don't talk to me like a baby 
    • Don't lecture me 
    • Don't touch me/my chair/my hands/my head/my device 
    •  Don't speak for me 
    • Please speak directly to me 
    • Too many people are here 
    • It is too loud 
    • I need a break/walk/hug/sensory input 
    •  I need to eat right now/drink right now 
    • This feels like an emergency 
    • Call my mom/dad/aide/teacher, etc 
    • It is too bright/dark 
    • I am constipated 
    •  I feel worried/scared/nervous 
    • Explain the schedule to me 
    • I need to rock/flap/stim 
    • I need my music/headphones
    • I need my calming videos
    • I need a chewy tube
    •  I need to do yoga 
    • I need to count 
    • I need my stuffed animal, blanket, calming object 
    • Leave me alone for a while 
    • Don't leave me, please 
    • Someone is missing 
    • Someone else is upset 
    • Someone was mean to me 
    • Someone was mean to someone else 
    • I can hear the lights/fans/buzzing/beeping. 
    • Make it stop. 
    • I will point I don't know how to explain 
    •  I don't know what I need




who knows what self-talk can lead to once we teach it?

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

720 Hours

Did you know that the Foreign Service Institute says that for an adult who is fluent and literate in English to learn a foreign language with a different alphabetic system to a basic communication level takes at least 720 hours?

Yet we ask children who may not have reading ability and who possibly have difficulties with receptive language to prove progress towards master of a language system with as little as one hour a week of language therapy.

Even if they were adults with full receptive language, a lifetime of experience in the world and average cognitive abilities AND they spent ALL 30 hours a week at school fully engaged in AAC learning (including during transitions, meals and hygiene activities) it would take approximately six months to get to basic communication mastery.

What does this tell us? It tell us we must immerse children in their AAC system every waking moment. It means we must allow for slow progress over long periods of time without giving up. It means we must teach language, AAC, literacy and cognitive skills simultaneously. It means we do not have time to waste on things like watching movies at school or playing bingo for the five millionth time unless we have made these activities into immersive and instructive language experiences. We also don't have time to waste on supposed "pre-requisites". It means that snack, lunch, recess, PT/OT, "life skills" and hygiene cannot be breaks from learning AAC - they must be part of learning AAC.

It means it is on us to get to 720 hours of AAC immersion and intervention.

It's the most important job we have.

Friday, August 12, 2016

In the world of AAC it matters little what church you belong to, as long as you believe!


I spent the past week at the International Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication Biannual Conference, held this year in Toronto, Canada. I learned a lot and enjoyed my time meeting people I had only known online before then.  

By the second day of the conference I realized that I might need to repost a slightly revised version of this post from four years ago at ISAAC in Pittsburg. 

At ISAAC Pittsburg I started joking that we all needed color coded dots on our name tags as shorthand to tell others which "church" of AAC we have joined.

What I mean is that people who believe dogmatically in a certain system of AAC (or device or symbols) to the exclusion of others and are such fervent believers that they appear to belong to a sect or a very demanding church.  Some people needed green dot because of their belief in Visual Scene Displays while others needed a red dot because of their belief in PODD (Pragmatic Organization for Dynamic Display).  Still others needed other color dots for MinSpeak/UnityWordPower, and Bliss Symbolics.  Of course there were also people who needed some identification to show that it was a specific hardware or system they followed, the PRC people (and correspondingly MinSpeak/Unity/LAMP), the Dynavox folks, etc.  And then there where those who needed some kind of mark to show they followed a personality more so than anything else.

There is nothing wrong with believing strongly in any of these "churches" of thought in AAC.  All these people and the people behind all of these systems are trying to do good.  They believe in the power of augmentative and alternative communication. 

The problem seems to come when followers of any of these believe in them so ardently that they cannot allow for the fact that there are other ways of doing things.  The problem increases when we in the field push one means or method of AAC over another merely because it is what we know well, it is the church we belong to, at the exclusion of systems or supports that may be more suited to the situation at hand.  Additionally, proselytizing our own churches of AAC to parents and future AAC users can give the false impression that the system, symbols or device are more important than how we implement it.

Families and future AAC users are frequently lead to believe that if we just, "get it right" with the selection of a system, device or symbols then communication will happen, like magic.  This isn't true.  Learning to be an efficient and functional AAC user takes years and years of instruction and hard work.  Professionals bemoan families who will not use AAC systems or devices at home, but we don't spend much time looking at how our actions created this reality.  We, usually without meaning to, create the idea that getting the system is the cure, then we fail to follow best practice in implementation.  Truthfully, communication success with AAC depends much more on implementation than anything else, on how we teach and present AAC.

If we moved our focus from our "churches" to how we implement AAC, no matter which system, device or symbols, we would see more competent communication users and less abandoned devices. 

Some suggestions:

Before anything else, in the absence of other evidence we must 
 Presume Competence! And even in the face of what we believe to be evidence we must Presume Potential! There is no such thing as "too low to communicate". And you must have words to prove you can use words. 

Here are some of the things we can all do regardless of which system we are implementing: 

  • Create a language rich environment - label everything, with descriptive labels, not just with the symbol for the thing but also with core vocabulary, so instead of the symbol for "light switch" by the light switch but a sentence strip of "Turn light on" over the switch and "Turn light off" under the switch.  Then model by pointing to each word on the label, and if possible in the communication system, EVERY time you use it.  Use visual schedules.  Model, model, model these adaptations ALL THE TIME.

  • Train all those who work with students who use AAC, including professionals outside special education and speech such as PT and OT as well as parents, siblings and peers in implementation techniques

  • Use more symbols not less, assuming you should "start small" seems obvious, but with only 4, 6, 8 or 10 symbols there is not much to say and little to model.  Start with a larger vocabulary for best results.  Visual Scene Displays may be a transitional tool in children under 18 months but we all eventually need words. 

  • Aided Language Stimulation is a must - all those involved in implementation MUST consistently and constantly model the use of the communication system (no matter which communication system)
    • you can do this by using the student's device yourself and having others use it
    • you can do this with wall charts 
    • you can do this with another system or device for the adult to use to model
    • you can do this with a printed version of a higher-tech system
    • you can do this with an ELMO camera placed over a low or high tech device
    • you can do this in so many other ways, your imagination is the only limit
    • using Aided Language Stimulation will slow the teacher/therapist/communication partner down, increasing time for verbal processing
    • think of Aided Language Stimulation as "Immersion", everyone agrees that immersion is the best way to learn a foreign language, creating an immersion environment for AAC is also the best way to learn Augmented Communication
  • Zip your lips and wait.  Nothing is more important than quieting yourself and allowing an AAC user to listen, think, form a message and respond.  I will say it again, ZIP your lips and WAIT!
  • Use the "expectant pause" during conversations, when it is the AAC users turn to participate, learn forward, keep your eyes kindly on the user, look ready but patient and BE QUIET.
  • After the message use re-castingto edit the user's message - If the child makes the message, "I good." You re-cast it by saying, "I am good."  (This one comes naturally to moms and those who spend time with small children.)  
  • Ask open ended questions to expand, "I think you are good.  Why do you think you are good?"
  • Respond to every communication attempt - even if it is just to say you heard him or her and the answer is no.  
  • Assume intentionality to teach intentionality.  One of the worse things we can possibly do is doubt the child's communication.  How many times have you heard someone say, "I don't think he meant that", right in front of the student?  We must assume that all communication is purposeful for the child to learn that communication is a worthwhile endeavor.  
  • Make sure the device or system is always available, how else will the user learn how important and valuable it is if we don't go through that trouble?
  • You are not the blue fairy, you do no good to anyone by magically reading an AAC users mind and providing everything they need whether they ask or not.  (Yes, maybe you are his or her mother, but how would you like it if YOUR mother tried to read YOUR mind?)  Learn to step back and wait for requests, if you must take action then model how to request on the user's device before you do
  • Have a low tech back up to high tech systems, and teach how to use that too
  • Beyond all else, BELIEVE! Believe in the power of AAC.  Believe in your power to give the gift of communication.  BELIEVE that your student or child can learn how to communicate.
Can I get an, "Amen"?

P.S.  I had many, many conversations with and watched many presentation by teenagers and adults who use AAC fluently at the ISAAC Pittsburg and Toronto conferences. Some used light tech, some used Toby Churchill Lightwriters, Some used PODD, some used Tobii Dynavox, some used iPads, many used PRC devices.  There is NO such thing as one size fits all in AAC. 

Sunday, July 24, 2016

What is a robust vocabulary in AAC?

Robust vocabulary is one of those terms you encounter frequently in the Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) community.  It is a term that isn't always explained. Here is an overview of what a Robust AAC Language System includes:
  • Motor planning is supported by consistent vocabulary arrangement
  • Expandable vocabulary allowing it to grow as skills improve
  • Grammar is supported, including verb tenses, declensions and comparisons/superlatives 
  • Alphabet is available for spelling including supports of letter/word/phrase predication and spelling correction
  • Pre-programmed whole messages are available for fast moving social occasions and emergency situations 
  • Core words are available and are large in number with all parts of speech/word types represented 
(Look! That's an acrostic for MEGA PC!  A robust system is a MEGA Personal Communicator!)

So what do is meant by these things?

Motor planning is the ability to learn to access your vocabulary through muscle memory.  Think of the entering numbers on a phone or calculator, touch typing or even pressing the "home" button on your phone or tablet.  You are likely able to do these things without looking or thinking about them.  You know where the keys are and your body is able to find the right buttons.  Or think about driving home from a location your frequently visit.  You go on auto-pilot to some degree, finding yourself reaching for your turn signal before the turn.  This is muscle memory.  A robust vocabulary has been arranged with motor planning and muscle memory in mind in the hopes that users will learn to access their language system without having to think about where common words are located.

Expandable vocabulary is the ability to add words to the language system as skills increase.  This goes beyond the ability to hide and unhide buttons (mask and unmask buttons) or add in a word here or there.  It's the ability to start off with less buttons per page and move to more buttons per page as vision, vocabulary or access skills increase without having to learn a whole new language system.  When systems do not allow for this they are essentially insisting those that need to start with less buttons at first because of vision or access issues must learn a whole new language when they are ready for more buttons.  Or the converse, when someone who is able to access many buttons per page looses some ability, as is frequent in some conditions that cause a need for AAC, the user must start all over again.   A robust system allows the user to increase (or decrease) the available vocabulary as skills change.



Grammar means the ability for the user to generate sentences that use correct and understandable grammar.  It is the ability to use all tenses of verbs and all declensions of nouns, pronouns, adjectives and adverbs.  Grammar is the ability to say, "Last week my brother and I went to a great restaurant and tomorrow we will go again" instead of  "Last week my brother and I go to a good restaurant and tomorrow we go again." A robust system has the ability to access grammar to make sure the user can say exactly what he or she means to say.


Alphabet access is the ability for the user to spell in an efficient manner and have supports to do so.  Those supports might be letter/word/phrase prediction, abbreviation expansion, and grammar and spelling correction.  The only way to be 100% certain that an AAC user can say everything they want to say is to give them access to spelling and teach them how to use it!  There is no such thing as putting "All.The.Words!" as many AAC supporters like to advocate on a device.  That is because their are about 1,025,109 words in the English language!  Even if you limited a device to the approximately 750,000 words in active use without their various forms (which adds about 10,000 more words) there is no way to fit all those words into a word based language system!  Compare that to the about 6,000 words in Unity 84 Sequenced or 12,000 in Proloquo2Go (set to advanced Crescendo with all buttons available).  Suffice it to say "All.The.Words!" means spelling.  A robust language system has access to the alphabet and the supports to use it well.  



Pre-Programmed Messages are phrase or sentence based messages available for playing back in very specific situations.  They are helpful in fast moving situations, places that follow a certain script or times when communication partners may not know or be able to wait for a message to be created.  An example might be at the pharmacy.  An AAC user picking up medication at a pharmacy will likely follow a certain script.  "I am picking up a script for _______.", "My address is _________." (Or birthdate, depending on the pharmacy) and "Thank you."  There are a few things that might be needed for trouble shooting "There should be X prescriptions." or "My co-pay should be X".  Having these messages ready means faster service, not holding up the line and getting on to errands that may be more fun.  Pre-programmed Messages are also useful in social situations such as passing time in the hall at school.  They are also necessary in emergencies.  Examples might be, "I am having an aura.  I am going to have a seizure.  My emergency medication is in my bag in the outside pocket.  Call 9-1-1 if it lasts longer than 5 minutes." or "I am lost.  Please call my caregiver's cell phone at XXX-XXX-XXXX and give them this location."  Sometimes the see-saw of AAC heavily leans towards core words, and they are vital, but pre-programmed messages are also a key part of a robust AAC system.



Core Vocabulary has been the a strongly advocated basis of AAC Systems for many years.  Core vocabulary words make up 80% or more of what we say.  They are the recyclable words of our language able to be used and reused again and again in many, many situations.  A robust language system has a base of core language.  A lot of core language.  Some experts say at least 300 words.  Core words are the center of a robust language system. 

For information on robust AAC systems and teaching a robust language system see these links:

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