Over the past year, I’ve become fluent in AAC-speak across several systems. I model language in all of my waking hours, between work and home and play. Anytime there is a device around, I am touching it (with consent) and showing where words can be found, what things we can say, how those pictures relate to what is happening all around us. It was not always this easy, and so I am sharing a few tips that got us here.
1. Carry it everywhere. I mean EVERYWHERE. Be sure that AAC is available in the bathroom and the car, at a restaurant, on a swing, at the park. Bring the device to small group art projects, trampoline play, pretend play center, the cafeteria, and whatever else pops up in your school day. Do your very best to find ways for your child’s voice to be available everywhere they go, all day long. This is even more important for children who are not able to fall back on gestures and vocalizations, or who cannot go get their device on their own. Use a harness. Try different straps. Find a mount for the wheelchair. Attach pages to walls and tables. You, the adult, wear it, if your child or student will not. Find one way or many ways that you can make sure the device, the book, the system is always, always at your finger tips. It is impossible for me to exaggerate the importance of this first step. If this is all you do for two weeks, three weeks, or even a month, then you are being successful. We need to get in the habits of always having our children’s words available to them, just as speech is always available to those without AAC. To leave a device unavailable is to tape our children’s mouth shut. Yes, I know that sounds extreme. It’s true, though. What way does your child have to share her thoughts or his opinions without it? Can they effectively protest, reject, gain attention, and comment when their system is on the other side of the house? We are so serious about this around here that when Husband forgets to attach Diva’s harness before she scoots into the living room, he immediately apologizes to her. When I get a picture from OT, I say — “Where is her talker?” When we visit her at school, we note whether her words are within finger tip’s reach from her. Yes, it is that important.
2. Play. Whenever we have made changes to Diva’s system, we’ve spent time each night, after she goes to sleep, just playing on her talker. It doesn’t have to be long. Five minutes is enough. We don’t have a mission of what we want to say. No agenda. We’re not practicing for something, rehearsing scripts and phrases. We are literally just playing. We hit buttons repeatedly to hear what the word sounds like. We string together nonsense sentences. We follow our whims as we open this folder, close that one. Play is so important. It takes off the pressure to “figure it out” and know what’s happening. It lets us experience the joy and playful associations that come with visual and auditory language, re-experiencing the way we played with sounds and words as a toddler ourselves. I’ve seen myself that when staff members and general education peers feel comfortable approaching talkers just to play, their language modeling increases dramatically over the course of the day. They are so much more comfortable with the system and with their own understandings of it.
3. Practice. Now we start practicing, often when the child or AAC user is asleep, unless you have a second system. You can also practice on a printed version of the child’s high-tech AAC if you do not have access to their device (such as a teacher who cannot take a child’s device home). Brainstorm some things that you may want to say to your child, something that you wish you knew where it was today. Look for those words and phrases. Practice putting them together and then speaking the message, if you have a system with a message window. One of our favorite ways to practice is to watch videos on YouTube: a clip of your child’s favorite TV show, a cute video of a baby laughing, or a video of two kids playing — whatever seems relevant to your lives. The first time through, we brainstorm things we might say. The second time through, we practice using that phrase in the moment. This takes all of five minutes — two minutes to watch the clip, one minute to find words, and two minutes to practice using it in the moment. Five minutes a day and you will be prepared for all kinds of topics as they come up during the day.
4. Converse. When you are feeling really brave and ready, you can build on your practice by having conversation. Sit with your best friend, your husband, your mom, and chat using only AAC. One of the moms in a favorite blog of ours has spent days speaking only through AAC, which taught her so much about the experience of living our children’s lives — and made her very comfortable with AAC! We’ve done dinner time with one parent speaking through AAC only. It was eye-opening in learning which words were not available, but also in slowing down our speech and engaging conversation around the table. Our son thought it was so fun that he asked for us to put her app on his iPad so that he could join us in using AAC!
Of all these things, carrying a device everywhere is the most important. It’s difficult to take advantage of opportunities when the device is in the next room — or still at home. I know that none of these things are actual language modeling to your child, directly, building their skills. Your fluency helps, though. It builds comfort and confidence. It takes away that awkward feeling that comes when you first try to speak and touch pictures at the same time, especially around people who may not be familiar with your child or AAC. That “I feel weird” is often the biggest hurdle for parents and staff to overcome. Who do you want to learn French from? The struggling student who is also learning to memorize a series of nouns, or the fluent speaker who can break things down, show new paths, and illustrate the rich joy of language? You want to be that fluent speaker. Creativity and inspiration come when automaticity allows our brains to focus on what we are saying, rather than how we are saying it (via device, instead of vocal speech). Besides — it shows our children that we are serious about their voices, that we find value and importance in learning to speak to them in their language. And that is an important first step.