Let’s live and breathe AAC
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Let’s live and breathe AAC

We all have the right and want to express thoughts, feelings, and needs. For non-speaking or minimally speaking children, finding an avenue to communicate effectively can be a challenging journey. Parents are often at a loss as to where to start. Sometimes a little bit of Makaton signing has been used here and there but we mostly find that gradually signing fades as parents feel that it just doesn’t seem to get copied and used by the children.

They live and breathe their system

This is where we need to pick up the pieces and start again: because all successful families where children start using their boards or their electronic AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) systems do this one thing: THEY LIVE AND BREATHE THEIR SYSTEM.

  • They have boards in every single room of the house;
  • They have a board in the car, attached to the side of car door so their child can point to it as they need to;
  • They have a smaller board in their handbag/rucksack when out and about;
  • They have a board for shopping and attach it to the shopping trolley;
  • They are never ever without their board.

Because they realise that a child should never be without their mouths to speak, should never be without a means to speak. They use their own board to model and the child has always access to their board to model back or to just look.

This is where success begins

Success begins at consistent and joyful use of the board/AAC system throughout the entire day. If we think about it, doesn’t it make sense? Of course, it does! We talk to our child for the first two years of their life continuously wherever we are and our child is continuously encouraged to use their mouths for talking in all situations.

Same goes for Signing: Makaton or any other sign system is a very powerful means to aid communication and I certainly advocate and use it in practice. Though much like words, signs are very elusive and temporary—as soon as the sign has been made it is gone and no longer present. Same with words of course. This can be difficult for people who need longer to process information.

The beauty of symbols or photographs is that they are permanent: they don’t vanish, they stay and with the core board they stay in the same place! This is very reassuring. We can learn where a symbol is and we can be assured that it will still be there the next time we look at the board.

AAC core board

Here is a picture of a core board:

AAC board

You can download this and other boards for free on the Saltillo Word Power website.

It has 48 cells and we can see the most frequently used core words on here, words that we use 80% of the day when talking with our non-speaking/minimally speaking children, younger children and children with cognitive delay. We keep our sentences short and we say phrases pertaining to their daily lives;

  • Let’s GET your toy
  • PUT it here, PUT it away, PUT it IN
  • Let’s READ a book
  • UP you get
  • WANT some MORE?
  • That’s GOOD isn’t it?
  • Let’s OPEN the box and LOOK

And so on… All these phrases can be aided with the above board. Your child will learn OVER TIME and OVER CONTINUOUS USE where GET/PUT/MORE/WANT/IN—where these symbols are. For children who are slow to process this is so helpful, to have a visual representation of what has just been said. It aids understanding in the first place. Gradually as a child starts to copy they will point to powerful symbols themselves and if they want to speak they can also speak of course:

A child might point to WANT + MORE and then say with their mouths: BANANA!

Board examples

Here are some other boards I have made specifically for daily situations and preferences of some of my students. Here is one for toileting:

AAC toileting board

And another one:

These boards incorporate high-frequency and versatile words, enabling us to make little sentences.

Building Language and Literacy Skills

AAC Core Boards are not just tools for immediate communication. They also play a pivotal role in language and literacy development. By using these boards, non-speaking children engage with words and symbols, reinforcing their understanding of language structure and grammar.

Over time they naturally absorb language patterns, laying the foundation for improved literacy skills.

Customisation for Individual Needs

Every non-speaking child is unique, and their communication needs can vary significantly. AAC Core Boards are designed with this diversity in mind. The boards can be adapted to include specific vocabulary relevant to the child’s daily life, interests, and activities. This personalisation ensures that the AAC Core Board is a true reflection of the child’s personality and needs, making communication more engaging and effective.

Collaboration between AAC Core Boards and Speech Therapy

While AAC Core Boards are an incredible tool, they are only used effectively by the non-speaking child when the board is used BY ALL COMMUNICATION PARTNERS around the child.

Again, I know I am being repetitive here, but the board needs to be used and modelled by the adults constantly in the first place and for a period of time before we can expect our children to take an interest and use the boards themselves. Think how long it typically takes for a child to learn their first word: around a year! During that time the adults talk constantly to their child without hesitation or expectation! The same goes for introducing this new way of communicating.

Collaborating with your child’s speech-language therapist (SLT) ensures that your child receives the right guidance in using the AAC system. SLTs can assess your child’s communication abilities, recommend appropriate boards and provide guidance on how to best implement them.

Conclusion

For non-speaking children, AAC Core Boards are bridges to their world.

These boards foster language development, social interaction, and personal expression. AAC Core Boards offer a beacon of hope, helping non-speaking children break through communication barriers and thrive in a world that is waiting to hear their voices. Boards are simple for anyone to use and understand. Have a go! You will be surprised how lovely it is to use a board with ease and once your child sees you do this, you have a chance for your child to start copying you…and express something! HOW ABOUT THAT! I look forward to hearing your stories!

The London Speech and Feeding Practice


Find a speech and language therapist for your child in London. Are you concerned about your child’s speech, feeding or communication skills and don’t know where to turn? Please contact me and we can discuss how I can help you or visit my services page.

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How to model AAC with our minimally speaking students?
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How to model AAC with our minimally speaking students?

modelling AAC

How should we start? Should we use prompts? What kind of prompts? hand-over-hand or just pointing? Should we wait, and, if so, how long? Introducing an alternative communication system (AAC) to our child is for many of us a confusing and sometimes scary prospect, but it needn’t be! Let me reassure you and share some tricks of my practice in this area.

Once we have decided to try for a picture based communication system, I usually start with a paper-based single page with between 48–88 core-words. I choose the number of words depending on where the child is developmentally and also verbally.

If a child does have a small handful of words already, I might start with the 88-cell board below. If, on the other hand, my student is completely non-speaking and still quite little then I might go for the 48-cell below here or I might have even less cells to start with. Again, sometimes I start with an electronic device in my clinic just to trial and introduce the idea and to see if, or how, a student responds. 

Below are some samples: a 49-cell board which I made for a child in a nursery setting

Below a Saltillo WordPower board that can be downloaded from the Saltillo website:

Example of a slightly more advanced board, again from the Saltillo Website

And here below one example of a board I made for a specific activity for a child who loves water and sand play:

It is perfectly possible to be very flexible and create a suitable board for any student, starting with as few as 2–5 cells and working up to over a 100 (very small ones) on a sheet of A4 or A3 paper.

So once we have a good board for our child, what now? How do we start introducing this into our daily life?

We can start by showing/pointing to the word GO within a play activity. For example:

  • a car run,
  • or a marble run,
  • or a spinner activity,
  • a wind-up toy,
  • anything that can be stopped and started easily.

How to start?

I will talk us through each of the steps using the example for the word ‘GO’.

First phase

The first phase is a TEACHING/ LEARNING PHASE. In this phase we do not expect our student to do anything, to copy us or to point to the board. If they do that it is of course a huge bonus and we will celebrate it.

Our job is to simply MODEL/SHOW/GIVE EXAMPLES of how we can use the board, by steadily and regularly pointing to the chosen word or words. We do so across the day and across settings:

  • play
  • meal time
  • getting dressed/undressed
  • bath time
  • going to the car/shops
  • etc

Once we can be sure that our student has been submerged and SOAKED in seeing the coreboard being used, say after some 3–4 weeks of using it consistently…

Second phase

We can begin to move into the second phase which is the PRACTICE PHASE. By now the student has seen the boards and he or she has seen the word GO (as a example) modelled many times.

Now we can start to see if we can tempt our student into trying this out for themselves.

What sort of TEMPTING are we talking about? Take a look at the Prompt Hierarchy below, which shows us what to do to get our student to be independently communicating as soon as possible. 

The PROMPT HIERARCHY: what sort of prompting should we do, should we expect something from our student or how should we view this stage?

  1.  TEMPT AND PAUSE

I have the AAC near to the toy and each time the child starts another round of the activity I say clearly ‘GO’ and I point to the picture as do so. I then pause and wait to see what happens. NOTHING? Then…

  1. USE SIGNS AND BODY LANGUAGE

Next time the child starts another round I might be very animated and do a Makaton sign for GO as I say ‘GO’ and I make a very over point to the picture again. Then I wait. STILL NOTHING? OK then…

  1. OPEN-ENDED QUESTION

Now I might say ‘GO’ and follow with: ‘OOH I WONDER IF THERE IS A PICTURE TO POINT TO…’

‘OH LOOK HERE IS GO!’ I then point to GO.

 STILL NO RESPONSE?

  1. ASK FOR A RESPONSE

I might say ‘GO’ followed by ‘LOOK! LET’S POINT TO GO HERE ON THE PICTURE.’

STILL NO RESPONSE? 

  1.  PHYSICAL TOUCH

Next time I say ‘GO’ I will try and take the student’s hand, help isolate their finger and help him or her to point to the actual picture.

REMEMBER: Prompting serves a very important function in scaffolding learning for students BUT if we are constantly prompting kids, then we are teaching them to only communicate when someone tells them to. We want our student to become as independent in speaking and using words as possible.

So once I have done Physical Prompting I will try and phase back down to number 1 where all I need to do is point to the picture or look at the board with the aim that the student will then point to the picture.

Take away points:

  • Keep the learning phase pressure-free and model without expecting our student to jump in. In other words, let’s model first without expectation. Later we can have a little bit of expectation.
  • After they’ve been exposed to and have been ‘soaked’ in plenty of AAC input, then, YES, we can create an opportunity to help them say or point to the word on their own.
  • We can model BOTH with and without expectation.
  • Only after LOTS of exposure, use the least to most prompting hierarchy and start creating opportunities for a student to become an independent communicator.

Do get in touch if you have any questions or comments or if you would like some practical help.

I am always pleased to hear from you.


Find a speech and language therapist for your child in London. Are you concerned about your child’s speech, feeding or communication skills and don’t know where to turn? Please contact me and we can discuss how I can help you or visit my services page.

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AAC Systems and Speech and Language Development
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AAC Systems and Speech and Language Development

Introduction

I see a lot of minimally speaking or non-verbal children in my practice. Some children are autistic and others are severely challenged with motor planning and some are both. Some children are simply delayed in their spoken language for reasons that we don’t quite know yet.

Regardless of the causes, what is always apparent pretty quickly is that apart from the odd gestures or Makaton signs (mainly ‘more” ‘finished’ and “biscuit) we don’t have a robust alternative for speech in place. Instead, what we often have is a child with lots of frustration and tantrums and some behaviours we really don’t want like: hitting, biting, pushing, grabbing and often throwing… There are others, too many to mention, but we don’t enjoy watching our children in these states. And we are often fearful of what might happen next if we don’t find a way to calm our child.

Fear not

In my work, before I get to offer an alternative means of communication, I often have to work with a fair amount of resistance on the parents’ side as parents tend to feel that allowing such a system into their lives will prevent their child from speaking. They fear that their child will so enjoy pressing those buttons that they will become lazy and not talk at all.

I totally get it!

Parents often feel overwhelmed by the task of getting their own heads round how to use AAC, either in paper form or a computerised system. This can be a great turn-off for lots of people who feel they are not very “techy” – like myself actually! Indeed, it is true to say that I resisted operating in this field for a long time as I didn’t feel able to navigate electronic devices. But fear not. Truly, most systems are very user-friendly. The support is great. And I have managed to become quite proficient in one or two of these systems, through using it daily. It really is as simple as that.

Alternative and Augmentative Communication (AAC)

There is plenty of research on the efficacy of Alternative and Augmentative Communication (AAC). It is now very well understood and proven that, once we introduce our child to a good, attractive way of communicating that they can actually do, in time children who can speak will speak. Speaking is more effective than any AAC system. It is more versatile, more fun, and when human beings have discovered how to speak, most will do so in favour of any other system.

Many children and adults, for many reasons, were never going to speak an awful lot, or with great difficulty. Or they were not going to like to speak. Or they were going to like to speak some times but not other times… And for all those people an AAC system is invaluable and a wonderful resource.

Neuro-diversity affirming means that we do not impose one system of communication on our children (speaking with our mouth) only because it is the one we are using and most people we know too.

Of course, we want the best for our children, and we want them to have the easiest and most straight forward existence on Earth. Of course we do. Speaking with our mouth does help with that. But we must come to understand that not all children and people feel like that and they struggle to use their mouth for talking.

Personal experience

I have difficulties understanding this myself, I will be very honest here. And I will say that – shoot me down in flames SLT fraternity – but I am learning to accept that using an AAC system proficiently is a very good alternative for when speech is not coming. I am learning to accept that some people are perfectly able to speak, and might do so but not always and only when conditions are right. I came into the profession as a speech therapist with the idea that I would help anybody that came to me to speak with their mouth. But I have changed my stance on that and now am happy to help anybody that comes to me to communicate most effectively with whatever works for them. I will always try for speech if I can … Just because it’s easiest!

Acceptance

Now I will equally celebrate a child pointing to a symbol or making a sign for something. It is a fantastic moment when it happens for the parents and me and the child! And we can always hope for more speech to come as we go. Nothing wrong with our aspirations, is there?

The basic premise is this: accept any mode of communication as valid, as long as your communication partner understands what it means. Don’t require individuals to repeat themselves in another modality. Do model the response in the modality you are trying to teach. So, a child can point to a symbol and I will respond with speaking (with my mouth) but I will also respond by pointing to a symbol because that way I am signalling that both are ok and that I have understood and am encouraging the person to say some more.

Here is some research;

Binger, C., Berens, J., Kent-Walsh, J., & Taylor, S. (2008) The effects of aided AAC interventions on AAC use, speech and symbolic gestures. Seminars in Speech and Language, 29, 101-111.

Sennott, S.C., Light, J., & McNaughton, D. (2016). AAC modelling intervention research review. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 41, 101–15.

Dada, S., & Alant, E. (2009). The effect of aided language stimulation on vocabulary acquisition in children with little or no functional speech. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 18, 50–64.

Contact me if you would like your child to have neurodiversity affirming speech and language therapy.


Find a speech and language therapist for your child in London. Are you concerned about your child’s speech, feeding or communication skills and don’t know where to turn? Please contact me and we can discuss how I can help you or visit my services page.

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Using AAC – Augmentative and Alternative Communication for Non-verbal and early Verbal Children

Using AAC – Augmentative and Alternative Communication for Non-verbal and early Verbal Children

Using a Core Vocabulary Board

Your Speech Therapist might have been advising you to introduce words to your child with the help of a CORE BOARD. What on earth is she talking about and why would we want to do this, I hear you think – and in fact this is what I get asked a lot, as I often do recommend using Core Boards.

Core boards belong to the category of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC ) and they can be really useful for:

  • Children or adults who cannot speak at all or who are very hard to understand.
  • Children who are slow to speak and have difficulty expressing themselves verbally, due to genetic conditions as Down Syndrome, Verbal dyspraxia, Autism or any other learning difficulty that means a child is slow to develop speech.

Here is what a Core board might look like, in fact this is one that I love to use. It is made by Beautiful Speech Life, there are a ton of similar boards out there for free. I have also made my own, you can check it out on my Instagram feed.

Using a Core Vocabulary Board

What is Core Vocabulary/ Core words?

Core vocabulary consists of the most common words used by children throughout a day. In 2003 Banajee and Dicarlo et al found that 50 % of pre-schoolers in their project used nine words consistently across their daily play and meal routines. These words are Core words and are typically the ones you can see on a board, like the one above.

How To Use It

Adults always first need to consistently model and show their child how to use a board. This is key! For example: Adult can point to “YOU” “WANT” ‘MORE” and then point to the cup of Water on the counter. Child could then reply either by shaking his/her head and/or pointing to “NOT” which also stands for “NO”. Then adult can point to “NOT” “MORE” and do an OK sign as well. Eventually Child can initiate a request and point to “I” “ WANT” “MORE” and then point to the cup on the counter.

This is not as cumbersome or limited as it first sounds or appears. Here’s why: As adult you can talk normally and, of course, many words you are using will not be on this board. But some will be, and you will be surprised how many you can find when you start using it. So you could say quite normally: Hey lovely (name of your child) would YOU LIKE some MORE water? The words in capital are on the board which you can point to as you speak normally. Basically, you are showing/saying to your child: “We can speak and these are the pictures we can use to help us; We call this TOTAL COMMUNICATION, as communication is so much more than just words! Great communication can be silent, where we use our facial expression, our smile, our eyes, our hand gestures, body movements and yes, of course, words. But when words fail us, these boards are so helpful.

This still does not answer your original question of: why would I want to do this, I want my child to talk!? You are a SPEECH Therapist, please help my child TALK, not point to pictures, that is not what I had in mind.

Let Me Explain

When speech is difficult for a child it doesn’t mean that there is nothing to talk about! Of course, we want all our children and all people to speak because it is the easiest and most effective way of communicating, no doubt! However, sometimes this is very hard for some children and whilst we are always working towards speech where possible, we also want to make sure that whilst figuring out how to speak, your child has a MEANS TO COMMUNICATE. Using a board like this might well be a temporary strategy but whilst you are using it and working on their speech you will find a reduction in tantrums and frustration as you child is able to express themselves more effectively.

Often we find that as soon as we offer a CORE VOCABULARY like the above sample a child who has had no or very few words suddenly blossoms and starts to point to new words on the board and starts to PRACTICE USING THESE WORDS!! Practice makes perfect, right? Yes it totally does! There is lots of evidence that tells us that using Core Vocabulary Boards ENHANCE AND SUPPORT SPEECH PRODUCTION AND NOT HINDER IT. Using a board like this will only ever be helpful to your child and will never make your child “lazy” – too lazy to speak? NO SUCH THING!

Here is what one of my parents says about the core board we use with her little boy:

“the board has been a game changer, my son is a visual learner so it really helps to have the board as he associates communication so much easier this way. We have incorporated his twin sister who models it’s use and have definitely seen improvement in speech through its support and his frustration around being unable to verbally communicate at times has definitely lessened”

K Connolly, Mother of Tom (aged 3.5 years).

Reading and hearing this makes me so happy!

In addition to general core board above I also sometimes use a Core Board that is specific to an activity, such as for example BLOWING BUBBLES. Below is an example of such a board, which you can use very nicely during a bubble blowing activity and sometimes it is a nice place to start for newcomers, this can be an easy introduction. You can download this and many similar boards on www.widgit.com for free!

Using a Core Vocabulary Board

There is so much more to say about AAC and using Coreboards, visit my Instagram you can find a bit more information on how I use them.


Find a speech and language therapist for your child in London. Are you concerned about your child’s speech, feeding or communication skills and don’t know where to turn? Please contact me and we can discuss how I can help you or visit my services page.