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.