All communication counts.

image of an iPad screen with blurry picture symbols and a message that reads: don't like Horrible Horrible!
my daughter’s request for cake, and her response when we told her not now: “don’t like Horrible! Horrible!”

All communication counts.

All of it.

When families ask for advice, they are too often told to ignore their child’s communicative attempts in favor of oral speech. Oral speech is seen as the be all, end all, and the ends justify the means to get there.

If a child hands you a favorite toy, you’re supposed to pretend to misunderstand until some vocalization is made. 

If a child points to an iPad on the counter and looks at you, then you are told to prompt him to say “iPad”. Until he says “iPad”, you are supposed to ignore his communication.

If a child says “cookie”, then you are supposed to wait for an “I want cookie, please” (because, you know, that’s how we all request things and talk all day log). 

It’s not fair. It’s also pretty obvious why our students stop communicating with us. We’re not listening when they do.

What would you say if your partner asked, “Do you want a sandwich?” Would it be yes, yeah, sure, nope? What would do if your partner ignored you until you put it into a complete sentence? What if the colleague down the hall ignored your friendly wave and smile, because it wasn’t a verbal hello? Or, worse, what if your best friend responded to your smile by saying, “Say hello”?

We all communicate in many different ways. We gesture. We hand things over. We nod, shake our heads, grimace, use slang, text, email, and speak in person. Why is this multimodal communication okay for neurotypical children, but not for our students with disabilities? Why are we so afraid of supporting all of their communication?

We need to examine these fears. What do we think will happen if we accept pointing, hand leading, vocalizing, facial expressions, and all the other forms of communication? What do we fear? Because, I promise, everyone is always going to use the easiest way for them to communicate at any time. No one thinks, “I can easily access my speech right now, but I’m going to use this slower method of the talker.” Everyone uses what is the most efficient way to share their message. 

We need to examine our hopes. What is it that we really want from our students? From our children? We want to know their thoughts, their feelings, their dreams and desires. We want to know what makes them laugh, what frustrates them, what worries keep them up at night. We want to share moments of joy. We want to hear their messages. 

This doesn’t have to happen through speech. Communication happens every day. Most of the time we simply need to open our eyes and ears to hear it. That’s what we do in our classroom. We listen for our students’ current communication, validate it, respond to it, value it. We also model and expand on the tools that a student has, so that they always have multiple ways to share their message. They determine what the message is, when they want to share it, and how they want to share it.

If a child hands their favorite toy to me, I might comment on what it is with speech. I might model requesting “help” on the talker. I might ask with pictures — “are you asking me to PLAY with you or to FIX this?”

If they point to the iPad on the counter, I say, “Yes, you want the iPad! Let’s get the iPad!” I might use the talker to model iPad, want, or get. I might sign help. I do this while also responding to the request that has been made. I don’t model these words because their point was invalid. Their communication was authentic and perfect in that moment. I model them so that they have experience with other ways to tell me what they need, when perhaps the iPad is not in sight.

If they say “cookie”, I might expand on that. I might say, “Cookies are delicious” or “you have a chocolate cookie”. I might make a joke about Cookie Monster or model “hungry” and “need more” on the talker. 

None of those scenarios are contingent on the child doing anything else. They’ve shared their message. We are just continuing to model and support all kinds of language and all the different ways we can share our message. And sometimes, we might not do any of those because they clearly don’t want to talk about that right now. That’s fine, too.

Yes, I am a teacher. Yes, we focus on communication. Yes, we always immerse our students in aided language simulation. And, yes, we see great gains without the pressure, without the prioritization of speech over all other forms. We create opportunities for communication to happen. We wait without filling in the silence, so that our students have time to gather their thoughts and orient their bodies. Getting their bodies — whether it’s oral muscles or hand muscles or something else — to do what they want can be a challenge in and of itself. We create time and space for that to happen. But if it doesn’t happen, if leading me by hand to a favorite Thomas is what’s happening today… That’s okay. 

To me, it’s not about forcing someone to use a particular method. It’s about creating a rich environment that values student voice (of all kinds). It’s about providing a robust education with access to a robust language system. It’s about creating opportunity for students to be heard, to be amplified. And then celebrating everything they have to say.