HELP! My Child Has an AAC System—Now What?!

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An augmentative alternative communication (AAC) device can be anything that is used to help a person communicate; it can be as simple as a communication board or book or as high-tech as a speech-generating device (SGD). These communication systems are meant to help children or adults who have difficulty communicating verbally. A few weeks ago, Jessie shared about a breakthrough one of her patients had while being evaluated for an AAC device.

Often, when my patients and their families first receive a device or choose an AAC system, they are filled with excitement and hope that maybe this tool will finally help their child communicate more easily. But when AAC is introduced, there is a steep learning curve both for the child who uses the device and for those people who communicate with him on a regular basis.

Learning to use an AAC device is like learning a new language.

A child who already has communication difficulties is expected to pick up a new language system very quickly, which is a challenge, and often that initial excitement is quickly replaced by frustration and questions: Why is this taking so long? She seemed so quick to pick up the device during the evaluation, what happened? When will he be able to have a conversation using his AAC system? Am I supposed to only use the AAC system with him or am I supposed to continue talking with him? Am I doing something wrong? Did we make a mistake?

Let me reassure you: You didn’t make a mistake. You didn’t do anything wrong. You should continue talking with him as before but you should also try using his device with him, too. Your child had a lot of help navigating the device during the evaluation because the device representative knew how to help her find the right pages and the right words. It’s a time consuming process, but keep working at it. You can do it!

How do we motivate a child to learn how to use the AAC so that it becomes a tool that communicates all the things they have to say?

How do we make the AAC learning process less daunting for parents who are busy keeping their children happy and their households running?

How do we prevent AAC frustration and burnout when the process takes longer than we expected?

We need buy-in – and not just from a parent, teacher, and therapist. A child using AAC needs that buy-in from family, friends, caregivers, teachers, and therapists. Everyone who communicates with the child is charged with learning the AAC system along with the child.

It’s a big commitment.

No matter who you are—parent, teacher, therapist, sibling, friend– It will take time and patience and you will struggle to learn the new system. But then, the precious child you love/work with/teach will see that you are taking the time, that you are right there with them, and that you are willing to learn this new way of communicating along with them. I cannot tell you how motivating it is for a child when she sees someone else “speaking” to her in the same way that she “speaks”.

So let’s get to it! Pull out your favorite toy, or snack, or seat at the dinner table. Here are a few ideas to get you started as you incorporate AAC use at home or in the community in meaningful (and fun) ways:

  • Use the AAC device/board/book at dinner time. Let each person take a turn using the AAC as well as verbal communication to tell something fun about their day. It can be as simple as pointing to a picture symbol for “Play” to tell about going to the playground at school or as complicated as composing an entire sentence using several picture symbols and then tapping a button to allow the device to “speak” aloud for you.
  • Use the AAC board to make requests. Is your child at the single word stage? You can use the board during snack to make requests like “Eat”, “Drink”, “More” or “All done.” Try asking questions about what she wants to eat, such as “Do you want grape juice?” and allow the child time to answer “Yes” or “No” with their AAC. If your child is just learning how to answer these questions, look for clues (Is she reaching out for the grape juice you are holding? If she is, you can help her by asking the question and putting her finger on the “Yes” symbol to answer the question).
  • Use AAC when you’re playing a game. Kickball at the park? Bring out the AAC. You can say and then prompt things like “My turn,” “Your turn”, “Go!”, “Stop”, and “Play”.
  • Going to the library? Bring in the AAC here, too. Grab a book and you can practice answering questions from the story/pictures (“What color is his ball?”) or model commenting, (“See the green ball” or “He plays ball”)
  • Use the AAC system to allow your child to help you grocery shop! Offer two different foods as choices. Practice saying “I like that” or “I don’t like that.” Giving opinions is empowering!

Depending on your child’s AAC system and how large the available vocabulary is, you might verbally say a sentence but only point to one symbol or button. In fact, even if your child’s system has access to hundreds or thousands of words, single words are an easy way for parents, siblings, and friends to start using AAC. Your attempts might be slow at first. You might feel frustrated. You might even have to ask your child for help navigating the device (believe me, I have to ask my patients for help finding certain words on their devices all the time!) But you will get faster, your frustration will give way to success, and you will eventually be able to navigate the device with ease.

Have patience, have fun, and use your AAC.

Margaret Isaacs, MA, CCC-SLP

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