Getting Started with AAC - It's Easier Than You Think

The question I probably get asked the most is, “Where do I start?”  Teachers, SLPs, and parents don’t always know what to do with the new aac system the student has been given.  As SLPs we know that you can’t just put the book or device in front of the student and expect them to begin it use it.  Communication for these students is a skill that needs to be specifically and directly taught. 
Where and how we teach is important.  Language needs to have a context. Usually it is a context that involves more than just the aac user. Communication is interactive.  If you listen to Dr. Janice Light talk about what students need, she lists social closeness, information transfer, social etiquette, and wants and needs.  For many of our students, the focus starts out on wants and needs and often doesn’t get much further.  In school, on the other hand, we start to spend a lot of time on information transfer - answering the questions posed by the curriculum.
But, Light puts social closeness at the top of the list.  Isn’t that what communication is all about?  We teach conversational skills because it is so important to connect with those around us.  We do need to be able to share experiences, feelings, and more.  Many of my teens who use aac love to joke. Telling jokes (or trying to) is their way of establishing that closeness.  
As students move into elementary school, the time and effort spent on establishing social communication grows.  We spend time teaching students to engage in eye contact, to smile at others, and to participate in activities.  For them to do the latter, they need a way to communicate what they want to say to others.
So, where do we start?  We start with the student.  What engages him?  What do we say when we are engaged with him?  What are the things he wants to or might want to say?  Take a look at the activities in which he wants or needs to interact and begin to build the vocabulary for that activity.  Not just the names of things involved; but comments - both positive and negative,  actions, and descriptions.  Provide those words in his mode of communication (usually this means his aac device or communication book), and you use them.  The more you model using the symbols or signs for the words involved in that activity the faster he will learn.
         This is not always easy in a classroom situation.  But in order for the student to learn the power of communication, he needs to be able to say what he wants to; not necessarily what we want or what is the answer to the question.
As the student begins to use the system, acknowledge, reinforce, and expand on what he says.  Offer choices as often as possible. Ask open ended questions rather than yes/no.  Model use of those action and descriptive words consistently.  Make sure you are not overwhelming the student with too much language, but keep your language a step or 2 above his.  Don’t talk so much. Pause in interactions to wait for a response. Assume that he can and will respond.

Over all, make sure you are providing sufficient vocabulary, sufficient models of a wide variety of communication purposes, and constant access to the system.  I often tell SLPs, teachers, and parents that they are going to do the same things they do with their other kids/students.  Just add pictures to your communication mode.

Where do we start?  Start with the student.
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