Being A Good Communication Partner

image of a communication device screen with a message in the bar: "want stop tickle me tickle me"

Over the years, I’ve come to believe that changing our behavior is one of the most critical ways we support our emergent communicators. I’ve seen it happen more times than I can count… A child communicates successfully in one environment, only to struggle in another. A student has back-and-forth conversations with one staff member, but says nothing to another. We are quick to blame the student or — worse — to not believe the student, their family, or their staff about that student’s previous success. But when do we look at ourselves? What could we be doing that leads to this shut down, this quieting?

In the field of supporting people’s communication, we tend to hear a lot about “creating communication opportunities” and “engineering the environment”. The role of the communication partner is often seen as someone who blocks access to items in some way, and then prompts the student to request or comment about that item.

This is not being a great communication partner. For starters, few people would like to live a life in which access to everything we love came through gatekeepers. It is not fair. It is not respectful. It also doesn’t teach voice. Instead, it teaches that you can perform this specific action to say exactly what I want and get the item that I’ve selected. On top of this, it creates pressure and demand, two things that frequently make it more difficult for our students to access their language or motor skills.

I believe in our students. They have so much to say. And, most importantly, they have a right to say what they want, when they want, how they want. If you’ve made this mistake, if you weren’t taught to center autonomy, there’s still time to change.

Start by believing your students. This is not just the first rule, but it is the hands-down most important rule. When your students say something, that is their voice. Believe that they are saying something. Respond accordingly. Do not say, “I don’t think he meant that.” Do not say “she’s just playing around.” Do not ignore, walk away, pretend it didn’t happen. If there might be a mis-hit, because we all mis-speak sometimes — wait and see. Or ask — just don’t assume. Conversation is an art of co-creation, and we must respect our students as that co-creator. Even with our earliest and youngest communicators, who may babble and explore as they learn where words are… They benefit from us responding to their words. They learn the meaning and context of those words by hearing our response.

In my Spanish lessons, if I say the wrong word for what I mean, my teacher still responds. She works with me to figure it out. This is the basic building block of seeing me as a competent communicator, as someone who will be a fluent Spanish speaker one day. This is also why I keep trying. No shame. Our kids know whether we believe they have voice and autonomy, if we believe that they can be fluent communicators. They know whether it’s worth the effort. They also know when they will be doubted, misheard, misunderstood, and disbelieved. And they stop talking. If a student is not using their communication system in your environment, but used it elsewhere… Ask: What can I do differently? What did they do to support them? Do not just write it off as an exaggeration or that it did not happen. (That was a really, really long paragraph. But I cannot overstate this as a key difference between environments where kids are successful, and environments where they are not.)

Give plenty of wait time. Oh my gosh, guys, can we please just slow down? Have you tried to use a communication device to express your thoughts? Even when very familiar, it can take time. Auditory processing, anxiety, apraxia… There are a dozen reasons why our students need time, and zero reasons why we shouldn’t give it. Stop asking question after question. Stop assuming they can’t do it if it can’t be done within 5 seconds or 10 seconds. Stop assuming they can’t do it if it can’t be done on demand. Learn to observe. Watch for communication all day long. Comment, ask your question, or perform your action — and wait. Wait 15 seconds. Wait 30 seconds. Wait 2 minutes. Observe your student to see what their wait time is, and then wait. Count in your head if you need to. Learn to be okay with silence. Ask or observe if they prefer your attention — eagerly watching and directing your gaze to them — or if they prefer you to turn away, continue with an activity, or come back to them in a few minutes. There are a wide variety of needs. Our students will tell us what theirs are, if we’re listening.

Stop asking so many questions; comment and wonder. Think about the conversations you have with your friends, your loved ones, or even your speaking students. We comment. We draw attention. We describe our feelings, or theirs. We typically don’t engage in 20 questions every time we converse with our friends. Why do we do this when someone is nonspeaking? Why do we pepper them with questions? Why do we relegate them to the role of respondent, and never initiate? We can do the same with our AAC users. We can comment on their actions — describe what they are doing, describe our own actions, share our feelings, connect their words or actions to something else we know. If you don’t know, try wondering. Try offering choices. This allows you to be equal communication partners, but it also can decrease the anxiety and difficulty responding as the demand drops significantly. Students can respond when they are able and want to, instead of feeling pressured to respond when we want them to.

There are so many more ways to converse that don’t involve questions. Examples of adult commentary that pepper our snack times (not all at once), with key words highlighted: You look hungry. You have an apple for lunch. I love to have apples. I ate an apple last night. I wonder if you want your apple whole or cut. I wonder if you want your banana or apple first. Oh, it looks like you want the banana. I wonder if you need help to open that. Let me know if you need help. Your friend has a banana too! I had so much fun building with you before lunch. I wonder if we should build more or play music after lunch. You looked happy when you were building. I wonder what we could tell your mom about your building… It looked tall and red.

All the words, all the time, for all the reasons. This is just a reminder that our students need so much more than a few nouns. They need action words, describing words, complaints! They need to tell us how they feel, where they hurt, what they did last weekend. Even if they are not yet doing that now, they need to be able to grow into that. When we say “core words are too hard” and then don’t include them — we are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Every student has a right to as many words as they can access. They have a right to have those words available everywhere they go. And they need us to be modeling all of those words. We cannot just model requests or happy words. We should model “this sucks” and “I hate this” and “leave me alone”. We should model “stop” and “help” and “need” and “tell” and all kinds of words. We can model what it looks like to comment, to protest, to ask questions. (Yes, our students should be able to question us for once!) Communication autonomy cannot happen without access to lots of words (and a keyboard!) Too many times students have stopped using their communication systems or shown low interest simply because they could not say what they want to say. My students’ first words have been everything from “mad” and “stop bugging me” and “play” to “train” and “fruit snacks” and “hungry”. All the words.

Respect the power of their voice. This is honestly a repeat of the first one, but, yes, it’s that important. If our kids use their voice to tell us to stop, then we need to stop. If they tell us they need a break, then we need to give a break. We can compromise, we can negotiate, but we must listen. The quickest way to get a student to shut down is to act as if we do not care. My daughter once was asked if she liked a book. She clearly said “no” with both her voice and her body (tapping a “no” button). The teacher took her hand and said, “Yes, you do like it”. My daughter learned so many things that day. She learned that her opinion was both wrong and didn’t matter. She learned that other people could put words in her mouth and manipulate her body. She learned that it was not worth the effort. When I saw that video, I was no longer surprised that my daughter did not use her communication device in that class. Because why should she?

Go with the ebb and flow of communication. Communication growth spurts come and go. There are times when our students may be chatterboxes, and other times when they go silent. My daughter may not use her communication device for 3 months, but then use it to talk to me back and forth for 25 minutes. It could mean that she’s focusing her energy somewhere else. It could mean anxiety or illness or sensory processing or even just a temporary change in preference of communication form. It doesn’t mean everything is lost. It doesn’t mean that we stop doing any of the above things. It means that we are patient, that we stay with them, and that we respect whatever communication form they are able to access in those times.

Let’s commit to being better communication partners — though the highs and the lows. Let’s show our students that their voices matter to us. We want to hear them. Them. Not us. Not what we think should be said or done. But their truest voice. Because the world needs that voice. We need that voice. And they absolutely have a right to that voice.

We have AAC: now what?

image of an iPad screen with Speak for Yourself, and a list of animals in the message bar: banana, cookie, cat, dog...

Access to AAC is a fundamental human right, but it’s one that tends to be forgotten and overlooked in many spaces still today. October is AAC awareness month, which means lots of people are hearing about AAC or gaining access for the first time. The first few steps can feel overwhelming to families and professionals new to this journey. There is a fear about “doing it right” and “doing it enough”. I promise that you can do it. You can do it. You must do it. And it will be worth every step. 

Get excited. It can be really easy for AAC to be seen as a chore or “another thing to do”. It can seem like that to families, to professionals, and to AAC users themselves — especially when drilling methods are used to teach its use. It’s really important for all of us that we don’t associate AAC with “work”. We need to stop seeing on AAC as a way to drill our students on all the things they already have a way to say. We need to see AAC as a tool that allows our students to express all the other things they have to say. This isn’t to say that learning a new language isn’t hard (it is) or that magic moments happen every single day. Learning to read and to write and to speak a new language — all of these things can be challenging at times. But they are all things we see as worth it, because of the long-term benefits. We find the joy in all of the moments along the way. The first time our child spells a word by themselves, the first time they “read” their favorite memorized picture book, the first novel we pick out. AAC is like that. Sometimes easy, sometimes hard, and always worth it. 

Make sure the system is available. This is the first thing I always tell families or new teachers to do. Spend the first few weeks getting into the habit of always having the system. Problem-solve what you need to make it happen, whether it’s straps, a Post-it note on the door, a different case, etc. Assign staff members who get systems out of backpacks. Figure out a plan and space for charging if it’s high-tech. This shows your student that you truly value their AAC system, that you believe in its importance, and that you want to hear what they have to say. It’s also really hard to model on or use an AAC system if it’s not there. 

Assume intentionality. Please, please, please, please, whatever you do, please never say “I don’t think they meant it” in front of a student. I wish you wouldn’t even think it, but please don’t say it. Always respond as if your student meant it. There is no harm in this assumption, but there is so much harm in telling kids’ that you do not believe their words. If you don’t understand, be honest. Ask. “I don’t understand what you mean, can you try telling me another way?” or “Hmm, I have to think about that, can you tell me more?” These are not hard things to say. 

Encourage exploration. Treat a talker like a voice. Do not take it away. Do not remove it or block it. Do not put it on the teacher’s desk to be used later or when it’s appropriate. You cannot do this with speech, and so you cannot do this with a talker. Exploration is wonderful. Exploration is learning. Exploration is ownership. There’s a million reasons for children to babble and stim and enjoy their systems. They could be learning the locations of words — how else will they find them, especially if they are not yet reading and spelling. They could be playing with sound and exploring words and language, just as young ones do when first learning how their mouths can make different shapes and noises. They could be engaging in self-talk. They could just be having fun with sound, and that’s fine too. They have a right to autonomy with their AAC systems, the same autonomy that they would have with their speech, the same autonomy they should have with their bodies. 

Familiarize yourself with the language system. Adults often complain about not being able to find words or finding systems not intuitive. I’ve found the hands-down best solution is to explore the system. Find a picture book and comment on all of the pages — with the AAC system. Watch a favorite TV show or movie, one where you know all the best parts already, and do the same. Think about words you might want to use on a daily basis — search for them. It truly comes down to practice. There’s a reason so many adults tend to prefer the system they know the best… Once you’re familiar with it, it becomes easy. If you don’t have access to the system itself, see if you can get access to a low-tech version, watch videos of people using it online… Give yourself time and grace to learn something new, but keep learning it. 

Model, model, model. And then — start modeling. Modeling is a fancy word for saying “talk with the talker”. Don’t overthink it. When you talk, highlight one or two of the words you say on the talker. If you’re wondering what your child could be thinking, highlight one or two possibilities on the talker (“I wonder if you’re tired? Sad?”) Start with modeling just a couple words or modeling at meals or spending some 1:1 time with your student’s AAC system and their favorite toy. Yes, you can start that small. Yes, you can start by modeling 3-4 words as the opportunity arises during the day. Yes, you can start modeling by talking all about food and drink and favorite TV shows, or other likes or dislikes at the dinner table. Just don’t make it work for them or for you. Don’t make it “say this right now”. Think of your goal less about “doing it right” and more about “getting comfortable with AAC”. I’ve seen fear of being wrong all too often lead to no modeling. And I promise some modeling, modeling with mistakes, modeling slowly, all of it is better than no modeling. 

Yes, there can be more to AAC. Yes, there are other things to think about, amount of modeling and vocabulary and recasting and probably some other fancy terms. I’m not denying that. But it all starts here. Don’t overwhelm yourself with dozens of articles and stress about doing it right. This is the foundation. This is what everything else is built upon. Make this strong. Become so reliable about having the device that you feel naked the one time you forget it for 5 minutes. Get so comfortable with responding and modeling with AAC that your child or student never, never, not for one second, ever doubts how important you see their system and how valued you see their words. Everything else comes later. 

How We Do It: All Talkers, All the Time

tween girl in stroller with AAC device on lap as she talks to Donald Duck
tween talking to Donald Duck with AAC system in her lap

Whenever we start a student on an AAC system, I tell people that our first step is ensuring that the device is always available. I tell parents — spend the first 2-3 weeks just bringing the talker with you. Bring it to the bathroom. Bring it to the playground. The grocery store. The bus. Seriously: before modeling, before anything else… We have to develop routines to ensure the system is available.

The obvious reason: we cannot model if the device is not there. Our students cannot use their systems if they are not there.

But also: it shows our students that we think their systems are important. We think their voice is important. We are telling our students with our actions that we want to hear what they are saying. We want to hear it everywhere, all the time, always. This world so often silences our students. We are saying — no, not us, not now, not anymore. This is powerful.

Here are some tips & tricks that we’ve used to ensure devices are available.

Set the foundation. Know your “why” for using AAC. Know it deeply. Share it with your team. Look for the moments that reinforce that why. This commitment to voice comes first. Take every opportunity to model this commitment and be a leader in the classroom.

Students can carry their systems. This isn’t always appropriate due to age, strength, etc… Adults can certainly carry systems for children. But don’t be afraid to let children carry their system. Ask them if they want to carry their system. Of note: do not make students carry their systems. The last thing we ever want to do is turn their voices into “work” that we insist they do. Show them the power by respecting their voice and choices, even if the choice is to let someone else carry it.

Use visual supports. When we first had 8 talkers in one room, it was a challenge to get them all out on the playground. We had visual supports on the door to remind us: did we get ALL of the talkers? “See me, see my AAC”, a tagline created by Kate Ahern, has frequently been posted on our bulletin boards, data sheets, and around the classroom.

iPad in pink case next to stack of Legos

Assign responsibilities. We have one person who always checks bags in the morning to make sure all talkers are available. We have another person who always checks to make sure we have all the talkers before we go to the playground. If someone sees a talker without a child, they grab it and bring it or the student or team working. We support each other. These routines have helped embed the availability of talkers into our classroom culture.

Consider the whole system. First, make sure there is always a back-up. Technology fails. Even low-tech. There are many ways to have a back-up system, each with its own strengths. Have a second iPad, a printed version, a core word board on your keychain. Remember also that an AAC system is often multimodal, more than one specific device. My daughter uses modified signs, partner-assisted scanning, word approximations, and her iPad device. Different environments require different pieces of her system; we plan accordingly.

Straps, harnesses, and more. Every device in our classroom has an attached strap. The use of straps, carrying bags (Chat Bag), or harnesses (Jabber Jas, Safe N Sound) is an individual decision. It also can change over time. Those are the most common ways to carry systems but we’ve also used a classroom cart. Be creative! I find that having some sort of carrying mechanism makes it easier to transition a device — especially if there are multiple systems in a classroom.

young girl in a stroller holding her AAC system in her lap while she participates in miniature golf

Eliminate fear. Fear of breaking tends to be one of the reasons that systems get left at home or on tables. We match students carefully to the best case and carrying system for their needs. We’ve matched students to water-resistant cases when they liked to pour fluids. We’ve matched students to cases with attached oral-motor chews when the case was bite-tempting. We’ve doubled up screen protectors. We’ve placed systems inside Ziploc bags. We’ve printed on iGage or TerraSlate paper. We also always make sure to have a warranty or AppleCare Plus.

Have you tried any of these strategies? Are there other strategies that you would recommend?