Language mapping with AAC

image of a preschooler holding a Thomas train and touching "up" on their iPad with Speak for Yourself, AAC app
all the words, all the time

A common question comes up when people ask about AAC and children with autism: “But what if they don’t have communicative intent?”

First and foremost, yes, if a child truly does not yet have communicative intent, you can still introduce AAC. You can do all the things we’re talking about in this series, wherever a child is in their communication. But I also feel like we need to break down this concept a little bit, because it can be confusing. Communicative intent is when we convey a message through the use of expressions, noises, sounds, gestures — all of the ways that we communicate. Notice that it’s not limited to words, it’s not limited to speech sounds, it’s not limited to pointing. It’s not even limited to intentional messages; non-intentional messages count. Non-intentional messages are where we all began. 

A baby is hungry. The baby cries. 

An adult says, “It’s time to leave the playground.” The toddler screams and pushes an adult away.

A girl’s sister takes her train. She bites her sister.

The teenager pulls her mom to the kitchen.

A preschooler stacks blocks in a tower and watches them fall. He flaps and jumps with excitement. 

All of these are messages. Some may be intentional. Some may be non-intentional. Some may be directed to others. Some may not yet be. But all of these children are using their bodies to create messages about their inner experiences. 

My guess is that when most people say “he doesn’t have communicative intent”, they may mean one of any number of things. They could be missing the child’s messages. They could only be referring to “appropriate behavior” — but challenging behavior is still communicative. Or they mean getting up and approaching an adult to share a specific and deliberate message. Each of these are separate problems that we can work through while using AAC. We only need to be open to examining the ways our philosophies and practices may be influencing what we see and expect in our children. I’ll address getting up and approaching adults in a future blog, but today we’re focusing on seeing a child’s message and mapping language on to that message. And you need to have access to robust language to do so. 

Seeing Messages

Every student is conveying messages. They may use their bodies. They may use unsafe ways to share their messages. But they are sharing messages, dozens and dozens of them every day. All of these messages are important, even when they don’t conform to a neurotypical way of communicating our needs, likes, or dislikes. 

We must become careful observers of the people we serve, whether it’s our children, our students, or our very best friends. What happens when our students are hungry? What happens when they are tired? How do we know when they like something? Do they do it over and over? Does their facial expression change? Do they move their bodies? What about when they are angry, overwhelmed, or frustrated? For a while, my daughter’s biggest message cue was when she heard anyone in the room say a relevant word, her head would tilt slightly. It wasn’t 100%, but it was a start. A start is all you need. Watch across daily routines and activities for several days. Make notes if you need to. Ask their families, their classmates, or a favorite staff person. 

If your student has a complex body, this might be more difficult. They may not flap or wave, run away or run towards. Watch their eye gaze. Do they look towards one item longer than another item? Do they turn their head towards or away? Is there a pattern to their vocalizations, more, less, faster, slower? Watch for subtle signs — a head tilt, a lift of the chin, eye movements, small shifts in their body. I once taught a student who simply closed her eyes when she did not wish to talk to us or engage in the activity. Every time. Art? Closed eyes. If I cancelled art and said we were headed to the playground, BAM! Eyes wide open, one hand waving, let’s go go go. If you’re not sure what a movement means, make a note of the time, activity, or communication partner that is present each time it occurs. Can you detect a pattern? Can you create situations where this message is more likely to be conveyed?

(Note of caution: do not deliberately create frustrating, overwhelming, or angering situations in order to test your hypotheses. Use observation only for those emotions. I am specifically referring to pulling out favorite toys, people, songs, activities, and looking for signs of interest, excitement, happiness, engagement.)

Language Mapping

Better understanding our students’ messages means that we can be better communication partners. One of the most important jobs that we have is to provide aided language input — as much as possible through as many routines of the day as we can. Aided language input refers to communication partners’ (that’s you and me!) modeling use of an individual’s AAC system. 

With our very early communicators — the students who are mistakenly labeled as lacking “communicative intent” — this modeling often begins by mapping language from their AAC system onto their actions. We translate the messages that our students share with their bodies into language that can be said on their AAC system. This is why it’s important to spend some time as Sherlock Holmes. We have to know what these messages are! Let’s look at some examples of language mapping in action. 

Jane 

Jane is a three year old student who often plays by lining up her Thomas the Train toys. Her teacher has been watching her play for the past few days and thinks that Jane is really happy when she lines up her trains. After she places the last one, she may smile to herself. She sometimes wiggles her fingers back and forth or runs around the table in a circle. Jane can do this many times in a row. Sometimes other students want to play with the trains and may take Thomas or Percy. Jane may start crying, pulling on her hair, or even fall to the ground. Jane does not seek out an adult for help or try to get her Thomas back. 

Jane’s teacher introduces an iPad with a dynamic display app. Notice that the teacher continues to map language onto Jane’s actions even if Jane does not appear to be paying attention at the time. We don’t stop talking to toddlers because they have their own interests to pursue. We don’t stop talking to our students just because they may not be looking at us — especially if we may be using neurotypical standards to judge attention and learning. We model, model, model, model. All day every day. Uppercase words are words that she models on the talker while speaking out loud. 

  • Jane lines up trains 
  • Teacher: “I think you LIKE this.” 
  • T: “That’s THOMAS! You LIKE Thomas!”
  • Jane takes them apart. She starts again.
  • T: “AGAIN! I wonder if you are HAPPY! You are doing it AGAIN.”
  • T: “LOOK! THOMAS is at the front.”
  • Jane’s peer picks up Percy, who was laying on the side.
  • Jane starts to whine.
  • T: “I think you WANT Percy. Maybe you are saying MINE MINE MINE.”
  • Before the teacher can help Jane get Percy back, Jane falls to the ground and kicks.
  • T: “You seem MAD! IT’S NOT FAIR! Sharing can be so FRUSTRATING.”
  • T: “I would love to HELP you get PERCY.”
  • Jane turns to teacher and looks at her for the first time.
  • T: “Let’s DO it. Let’s go ask Johnny for PERCY. You were PLAYing with PERCY.”

Robust AAC Matters

You can start to see why it’s much easier to model when we have access to a robust language system. A robust language system is one that has a lot of different words. It has nouns, verbs, actions, pronouns, adjectives, and all the little words that those who speak take for granted. Maybe you don’t have all the words open right away, but the options are there. They can be added at any time. 

Imagine Jane if her teams had been focused solely on functional communication training that was limited to requesting? How would we have to teach? Would we have to simply block Thomas and have Jane request Thomas over and over? What social interactions would we have missed? What language learning opportunities? What social-emotional regulation skills could we have taught? 

It starts to become obvious why — even with our earliest communicators — we need to be able to access all the words. When we limit our students to fringe/nouns or 10-15 words, it becomes difficult to say frustrated, angry, mad, this is too easy, happy, excited, don’t like, don’t want to, or give me more sprinkles on my cupcake! And all of those words are important. Especially about cupcakes.

Do you want more examples? Do you have a situation where you’re struggling to find the message? Or the right words to map? Leave your questions & feedback in the comments.

Last week: all means all, all the words, all the time, for all the people.

Next week: teaching communication as interaction — without limiting our student’s communication access, part 1.