Sunday, September 17, 2017

Let's Talk About How Many Words Your AAC User Needs!

The debate is still on about which words we provide to our beginning AAC users, how to organize that vocabulary in AAC systems, and how to teach AAC users to use those words?
It’s not a new debate, and you may have very strong opinions.  However, in recent years there’s been a much more cohesive concept in the AAC community about what AAC systems and AAC instruction should look like.
When I do presentations around the country, I always talk about where we have been (the bad old days of whole message systems)  and where we are now (with more emphasis on spontaneous utterance generation) in that discussion.  How we manage this is so crucial to the individuals whom we serve.

One quote I always use that comes from Porter & Kirkland pretty much sums up the importance of this issue:

“a child who uses speech will independently select the words she wishes from the vast array she hears/uses everyday.  A child who uses aac will independently select the words she wishes to use from the vocabulary other people have chosen to model and, for aided symbols, made available for her to use.”

Which words we choose to provide will have a profound impact upon that individual’s ability to communicate what she wants, when she wants, to whom she wants.

As SLPs we need only look to the ASHA Glossary for direction:

       “Communication is based on the use of individual words of our language.  True communication is spontaneous and novel.  Therefore, communication systems cannot be based significantly on pre-stored sentences.  Communication requires access to vocabulary of individual words suitable to our needs that are multiple and subject to change.  these words must be selected to form the sentences that we wish to say.”

So, core words or fringe?  It is not an either or proposition.  It is a matter of balance, of measuring power, and of matching to the individual.  

I did a study many years ago (presented at ASHA way, way back in the 1980’s) where I analyzed language samples of the minimally verbal severely disabled students I was working with at the time.  What I found was an overwhelming preponderance of nouns that provided them with little power to communicate anything more than tangible items that they wanted.  This same finding has been repeatedly seen and talked about over and over since then - and probably before then, too.  

As Carole Zangari (  so eloquently put it  - let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. 
Core vocabulary is powerful. It contains the words we use to communicate the many messages that are i important to us.  And for students who often want mostly to tell us to go away, leave them alone, give them a break, provide something different, or tell us what is bothering them, a vocabulary of nouns is rarely powerful enough.
But let’s not forget the words they need to talk about their family and pets, their environment and activities, and - invariably - the things they want.

So, I’ll end with another quote - and a FREEBIE -  and a different metaphor - this time from Janice Light - “There is more to life than cookies.”

This is the perfect time of year to get started building more vocabulary.  Kids “want” food and presents and more, of course they want “more” of all those things - not to mention more hugs, more songs, more fun - “no” to the things they don’t like, “stop” to their siblings who might  grab and push, “like” is the perfect comment to the great times with families and friends, and “love” is the one word we all want to hear.

Keep on talking!

Sunday, September 10, 2017

It's Football Season Again; How Much Do You Know About Traumatic Brain Injury?

Over the past few years, I have been seeing more and more students who have had Traumatic Brain Injuries.  It’s sad - and scary - to see the amazing growth in this population. 

It is also sad to see how under-served this population is in special education.  Often, families believe that once the child is dismissed from rehabilitation that further services are not needed.  Unfortunately, this is rarely true.

What, exactly, is traumatic brain injury (TBI)?  Broadly defined, it is an alteration in brain function caused by an external force.  Usually, this external force is a motor vehicle accident, a fall, a sports injury, illness, or abuse.  The impact upon the student’s performance  can be anywhere from mild to profound.  

The areas of impact include social competence (social interactions, social adjustment, social skills), language, reading, hearing loss, attention & memory problems, increased time to process information, difficulty with learning new things, difficulty with organizational skills, unintelligible or inconsistently intelligible speech, and more.

Unlike some disruptions to functioning, being younger at the age of impact is not a positive.  While we sometimes equate being younger at diagnosis with improved outlook, the opposite is usually true with TBI.  The younger the child, the more likely there will be disruption to normal development as well as long-term consequences.  While an adult’s already developed brain may show some improvement back to normal function following an injury, the young child’s brain is more vulnerable and has no developmental level to return to.  Additionally, because of the often fluid nature of the injury, there may be increased consequences as time goes by. and more complex functions are required of the brain.

Unfortunately, for SLPs there are not many good assessment and treatment tools for us to use, and the problems faced by students with TBI are often more complex than the cognition & language deficits seen in other populations.  They are often much more multifaceted in the foundational skills involved.  
When assessing students with less profound impact, we need to look carefully at social cognition, pragmatic language, and executive function as well as general language form and content.  Discourse analysis is crucial; evaluating story retelling and conversational skills, as well as ability to speak on a topic.  

Often, a student finds it much more difficult to learn, remember, study, and organize than he used to.  This can be overwhelming and frustrating.  He may become angry.  He may become socially isolated;  as interactions with peers are more difficult.  

Students with TBI may also become impulsive; grabbing at items and people, running off, having tantrums or outbursts, being rude and insulting.  The student may have mood swings, may fatigue more easily, and is usually easily overwhelmed.  
Therapies will likely be required long-term, and the transition beyond school can be more difficult.

In the students that I see, the language impact is so severe that use of AAC (augmentative communication) systems is necessary, either as a primary mode of communication, or as a repair strategy to augment speech when the student is unintelligible or when (s)he cannot retrieve the words needed.

There is evidence in the literature that context-dependent, functional intervention is more successful for students with TBI than our usual impairment-based interventions.  Students need direct functional experiences with skill building for the specific contexts in which they will use the skills.  

Any strategy or skill that is taught needs to be put into real world application explicitly.  Material needs to be repeated and paired with visual and auditory cues.  

Creating a plan for each language activity needs to become automatic.  The student needs to learn not only the strategy to apply, but the process of planning which process to use, how to apply it, and reviewing/self-monitoring whether it worked.  
Unlike much of our language intervention, we need to address specific situations, rather than individual skills.

What else can we do?  Work with teachers to make sure that the student has frequent breaks to address fatigue, has directions and tasks broken down into smaller units and presented one at a time, is given additional processing time for directions and explanations as well as additional time to formulate responses, is provided with an environment that is less distracting, and it given explicit direct instruction with ample feedback.

We can also work in speech-language therapy on vocabulary building, understanding of non-literal language and nonverbal cues,  problem solving skills and conversational skills, ad formulation skills.

Obviously, every instance of TBI is unique.  Location of the brain injury is crucial in understanding what functions and behaviors are impacted.  Understanding that the underlying language problems often go beyond what our standardized testing covers will help clinicians plan for assessing and intervening with these students.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

3 Little Words That Mean a Lot

I find a lot of professionals and parents alike who don’t really understand what AAC means.
So, first, to break it down, let’s look:

A= Alternative
A = Augmentative
C = Communication 

Alternative is typically what we’re talking about in AAC.  These students need an alternative to speech because they are completely non-speaking, or because they have so few words that they cannot meet their communication needs at all.

Augmentative is the one part people tend to forget.  To augment is to add to.  And that’s what we do with AAC for individuals who have some speech, but not enough to meet all of their communication needs. It’s also what we do for individuals who have speech, but their speech is unintelligible so much of the time that  they need a functional repair strategy, so that they can fix the breakdowns in communication when others don’t understand them.

One of the biggest groups I see with this difficulty is those individuals with cerebral palsy whose speech is so dysarthric that it is unclear to most of their listeners much of the time.
Another group I see with this need is children with apraxia of speech who may have some speech, but it does not function for their all of their needs.

AAC as a repair strategy is a novel idea for some, and is a “hard sell” sometimes.  We speech-language pathologists take the ‘speech’ part very seriously. But when we’re not meeting the needs of our students, we need to step back and remember that our goal, really, is communication; that last pesky letter in AAC.

AAC as a way to augment what speech the user has is often delayed while teams work on speech to the point where students themselves are frustrated with their inability to communicate.

One of the most persistent myths about AAC is that it shouldn’t be used for students who have some speech.  That it will delay their speech further or become a “crutch.”

However, research now tells us that far from delaying speech, AAC used consistently can actually help students develop their speech skills more.
And, far from being a crutch, it is a tool that helps students develop their language and communication skills.

So, what, exactly, is communication?   According to the National Joint Committee for the Communication Needs of Persons with Severe Disability, it is:

  • “any act by which one person gives to or receives from another person information about that person’s needs, desires, perceptions, knowledge or affective states.  Communication may be intentional or unintentional, may involve conventional or unconventional signals, may take linguistic or nonlinguistic forms, and may occur through spoken or other modes”
This definition puts the focus on the extent to which there is shared meaning between the communicator and his partners - NOT on whether the interaction is spoken.

AAC refers to all modes that make communication easier; and can include gestures, facial expressions, alphabet or pictures, computers, and signs.

So, before you say, "He's note ready for AAC,” remember - even babies communicate. No one is too impaired to learn some communication skills.
I’m pretty sure that if you look at your students who “aren’t communicating,” that you will find that they truly are.

Ascribe meaning to what they do do, and……… keep on modeling.

Want some year-long help with meeting the needs of your aac users? Here is a kit to get started and keep you going all year.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

All About a Starting Place

To follow-up on my last post, I want to talk a little bit more about beginning with young students who are very impaired.  There are a couple of things I wanted to add, especially if you’re backing up from a system that seems too complex.
So, where do I start?  With just 1 core word.  If I’m working with a student who cannot learn the Word of the Week in 1 week, or for whom 4 symbols per page is too much right now, I go back to my basic core and find the word that will give this student some communicating power.

Often that first word is NOT want, but is Go!  “Go” gives us a lot to work with, because it can be used in so many ways.
I can teach the child to use “Go” when (s)he wants to go somewhere.
I can teach “Go” when the student wants you to go away and leave him/her alone.
I can teach “Go” in order to give the student a direction to give others to ‘turn it on and make it go.’

Think about how powerful that one core word can be.

When I’m working in an evaluation I always have my portable dvd player and some wind up or other battery operated toys.  I’ve lost track of the number of hours I have spent teaching, “Go,” with dvd’s. (This also works if you have 2 iPads, using one for YouTube or music and the other for communicating. I also use my phone for music.)

When I am doing evaluations I like to see just how far I can “push the envelope.”  Can I establish “go,” and then move to “go more?”  And then can I get to “want go more?”  I have literally spent an hour just with videos and a basic device page and gotten that far, and more!  All it takes is consistent modeling, motivating activities, and a structured, direct instruction.

Now not all students can do that even with the best instruction in the world.  And I have also seen many students who take much longer to learn “Go.”  But I am here to tell you that I pretty much have not found a young student who cannot learn basic cause-effect with communicating.

What I do find are teams  who give up.  It is difficult to maintain the consistency and level of instruction when progress is very slow.  More often than not, I see staff who get discouraged by the lack of feedback from the student and, when discouraged, eventually give up the level of modeling consistency that is needed.

So, to those staff who have become disillusioned with AAC, I say:
“Don’t give up. Don’t stop modeling consistently, Don't lose confidence in yourself or the student. Don’t conclude that he can’t learn to communicate.
Do keep on modeling as much as possible.  Do find the most motivating activities that engage your student (and yes, these are sometimes difficult to figure out).  Do find as many different ways and contexts to model that core word in genuine communication interactions.”

More next week. Until then, keep on talking! 

Sunday, August 20, 2017

AAC: 7 Ways to Get Started with Young Emerging Communicators

One of the classrooms I was consulting to over the past couple of years was a class of medically fragile students with Complex Communication Needs. At the time, there was not a lot of AAC going on.
Fortunately, for both myself and the students, the teacher was very open to adding more Assistive Technology. So, here are a few of the elements we added to her classroom:

1. At circle time, the teacher used a Big Mack button to have students respond to taking attendance. Access was an issue for many of the students. So, where the BigMack button was held was a big issue. And this was just 1 single response.

2. One of the students had the motor skills to touch a target with her hand independently, and the ability to use more words. I made her a PODD book, and demonstrated how to provide Aided Language Stimulation consistently. I provided support monthly throughout the school year.

3. At one point, this student needed to have something that was more compact. Aides were having a difficult time dealing with her behavior in the room, which included trying to contain flailing arms and legs and head butts.
       So, since they told me they couldn’t handle the PODD book, and I wanted to make sure whatever AAC I was providing was getting used consistently, I backpedaled and went to a small (20 symbol) core word board, with some activity specific fringe words (presented in pages of 6 symbols) for the 2-3 favored activities she would spend some time in.

       This student had some cortical vision issues, so these symbols were printed with bright red and yellow and high-contrast symbols where available.

4. For other students, I looked at adapting books and encouraged the teacher to do more read aloud and shared reading with specific objectives in mind. For the students in this class who were going to be involved in shared reading activities, she needed a way for them to respond to questions or make comments. For most, this involved using eye gaze.
       So, we went from the teacher holding up a 2-choice array to a version of an E-tran board with 4 choices, and then 8. Thus, student response choices were quadrupled in a short period of time. And, with multiple boards with this many choices, there was a bigger array of responses possible.

5. Speaking of read aloud time, this was another opportunity to use the Big Mac buttons or a Sequencer. Recording the repeated line of text gives students a way to participate. Recording sequential lines gives them even more opportunities.

6. Access was the biggest problem with this group of students. I added visual cues and communication opportunities in as many places as possible. We looked at a variety of different switches for them to use and I pushed Partner Assisted Scanning as a no-tech mode. (District purchasing processes are still a mystery to me. All I know is it usually takes forever.)
       We looked at SCATiR switches, toggle switches, sip-n-puff, pillow switches, and more. Fortunately, we also had access to the California Assistive Technology Exchange (CATE) loan program. This allowed trials of a wider variety of switches we would have had access to.

7. I made large, 3X5 card sized symbols so that there was a classroom sized communication board that was core word based, that was large enough for all the students (with the exception of those totally blind) to see, that was high contrast for students with vision disorders, and whose symbols were easily removed one at a time during instruction time to emphasize use of the target core word. Any opportunity to use a core word is important.
       Access to symbols needs to be as easy as possible. Putting these cards into a large pocket chart provided that quick and easy access to enough core words that the teacher could use them seamlessly in instruction.

       Using aided input during routines is a great way to introduce the core vocabulary in consistent formats. With this particular group of students life was full of routines. Between changing diapers and clothes, washing up, feeding (which for a number of them was via G-tube), and other daily care routines there were a lot of times throughout the day when the same sequence was carried out and talked through. Perfect opportunities to provide aided language.

In my 40+ years of working with children with little or no speech, I’ve learned a lot. The field of AAC has learned a lot. I like to think we now know enough to give every child, no matter the disability, a voice.
I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen it work. And my hat is off to all those SLPs and teachers and paraprofessionals who make it work every day, even when it seems a Sisyphean task. We just need to continue to provide the input and presume competence.

And……keep on talking, with pictures.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Competing for Definitions? More Games for AAC

Some districts in the U.S. are already back to school. Some wait until after Labor Day.  Either way, I have one last bit of summer fun with a purpose.  We’re going to have students practice making referential definitions with use a hint of competition.

Referential definitions are at the heart of a lot of vocabulary instruction for nouns.  A district attorney once challenged me on this particular objective.  He wanted me to prove that creating referential definitions mat a state standard.  (Mostly I think he didn’t know what I was talking about).  

Teachers around the world ask kids to provide referential definitions all the time.  “Wha is Saturn?”  “What is a peninsula?”  “Tell me about a giant sloth.”

In my version, we put visual symbols on the table for the critical elements: categories, adjectives, function, place, materials.  The SLP turns over a picture of a relevant item.  If your students are all able-bodied you can have them rush to grab relevant symbols. 
       The catch is that once they have chosen a symbol they must be able to answer that piece of the definition.  If they can’t, they forfeit their turn/points/move.  They also have to put the symbol back on the table, where another student can take it.  

Students can take only 1 symbol per turn. After everyone in the group has had a turn, students can scramble for the remaining symbols.  Students with the most symbols/points/spaces on the game board “win.”  In fact, all of your students win in the vocabulary development game.

Back to school fun in my next posts, so, in the meantime, just……..keep on taking.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

AAC Vocabulary BINGO

Are you ready for one more way to have fun finding words?  Try a game of BINGO.  You can use any group of vocabulary words.  You can take the words from curriculum areas, from books, or from whatever thematic topic your or the teacher are working on.  Create multiple BINGO cards that use the same words; just vary their positions on the cards.

And………..voila!  Another fun game for finding vocabulary in the AAC system.  If you’ve been talking about Spring, use Spring-related words; such as grow, plant, big, tiny, dirty, insect, flower, bud, bloom, robin, nest, hatch, warm, sunny, rain, etc. (If you don't want to make your own, try my Everything for Spring resource, complete with BINGO game)

If you’ve been working on answering Wh-questions, try BINGO cards with random vocabulary that includes people, animals, and characters, actions (verbs), places, and time words (clock and calendar).  As you call out a word, students have to tell what kind of a Wh-question it answers before they can place a marker on it.

Simple, but effective.  Kids love playing BINGO games.  Above are a couple of examples of BINGO cards I’ve used.  You’ll find the full resources they came from in my TPT store if you like saving time and reducing your work load.

Keep on talking!

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Riddle Me This

Are you looking to build your AAC user’s vocabulary some more? Try descriptive riddles.  Kids love riddles and jokes.  You can find a balance between funny (for words that might or might not be on your list) and target words (which might not have a funny riddle you can use).

One way to build strong vocabulary skills - and AAC navigation skills - is by using multiple meaning words.  We’re all familiar with such “funny” remarks as “Had a nice trip? See you next fall.”  While I am not a proponent of pranks, trash talk, or laughing at others’ misfortune, it is undeniable that such “jokes” make students laugh.

Once we have them convinced we know all the cool jokes and riddles, get serious and talk about why each one is funny and how the word(s) can be used with each of their different meanings.

Simple riddles can include: 

I live in a bowl.
I can swim.
I have a tail.
I have fins and big eyes.
I am a…… (find me in your AAC system to answer).

Students need to listen to the clues, figure out the answer, and find it in their communication system to answer.

I am the fifth planet from the sun.
I am named for the King of the Gods.
I am the fourth brightest object in the sky.
I am…… (I may not be in your AAC system because, really, who is going to use my name often, or even never?  But you should have a content-based board for specific nouns that just won’t get used again and aren’t worth devoting valuable real estate to.

Or, using the type of multiple meaning slang phrases I used in the first example, you can then discuss both meanings of “trip” and both meanings of “fall” presented in the sentence and have students find the words for both meanings in their communication system.

Building semantic relationship knowledge - the knowledge of how words are related to one another - is key for all students with language disorders.  It s especially key when our students have to consciously think about where the word they want can be found.

You can grab my free multiple meaning word riddles resource here.   And if you're interested in more activities for finding vocabulary based on listening to clues, try my Describe It to Me! Listening to Descriptions resource.

In the meantime, stay cool and……….keep on talking.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

How Are They Related?

       Last week I talked about using stories with rich illustrations to find target words in students’ AAC systems.  Another activity you can do is to find synonyms and antonyms.  You can choose words from the story (aforementioned) or vocabulary words from class, or words you’ve been working on in therapy.

Give students the words in some fun format - usually playing with a generic game board and cards is enough to make it feel less like work.

Then tell students to find a synonym (or antonym) in their AAC systems.  This is great for practicing word relationships and reinforcing those vocabulary words you want them to learn, and is also good practice for finding specific words in he AAC system - words that might not be as high frequency and therefore don’t get as much practice.

Other words you can target during this activity: words for turn taking, words for commenting during a game.  I’ll bet your AAC users have objectives for these skills, too.

More fun next week. In the meantime, keep on talking!