Using AAC during play with your child
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Using AAC during play with your child

Playtime! It’s a magic time for exploration, learning, and connection.

If your child is struggling to use words with his/her mouth, we can always use a robust Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) device to help find their words. We know that using such a device does never stop or delay children to speak with their mouths. On the contrary it helps, enormously!

Can playtime still be a blast? Absolutely! In fact, incorporating AAC into play can be a powerful way to boost communication skills, build confidence, and create a truly inclusive play experience. Here’s how to make it happen, with a focus on core words and core scripts for our GLP’s (the building blocks of communication used by everyone). In this video I am using the core word ‘IN’ and ‘MORE’.

The Magic of Core Words

Core words are the most frequently used words in everyday communication. They might be verbs like ‘want’, ‘more’, ‘go’, or ‘stop’, or adjectives like ‘happy’, ‘sad’, and ‘hot’. These words are the foundation for building sentences and expressing needs and desires. They’re perfect for children using AAC because they’re simple to understand and use.

Let’s Play! Here’s How

1. Choose Your AAC System

Many options exist! It could be a low-tech picture board with core words, such as the one you see pasted on my cabinet door in the background, or it can be a dedicated AAC app on your tablet. Here I am using the GRID app but I also love using others, such as LAMP Words for Life.

2. Make it Fun and Functional

No pressure! Integrate your AAC system seamlessly into your play routine. Here are some ideas:

  • Car/trains: Use core words to describe what the cars are doing: (‘down’, ‘go’, ‘stop’, ‘again’ ‘fast’ ‘slow’).
  • Dress-up: Use core words to choose clothes (‘want’, ‘hat’, ‘shoes’).
  • Tea Party: Use core words to ask for and share (‘more’, ‘juice’, ‘give’).
  • Building Blocks: Use core words to describe what you’re building (‘tall’, ‘big’, ‘house’).
  • Dolls/Stuffed Animals: Use core words to act out scenarios (‘sleep’, ‘eat’, ‘cry’).
  • Arts and Crafts: Use core words to describe colours (‘red’, ‘blue’), actions (‘draw’, ‘paint’), and feelings (‘happy’, ‘sad’).

If your child is a Gestalt Language Processor you will want to model meaningful, fun scripts instead of single words! As above, but use phrases:

  • Car/trains: Use scripts to describe what the cars are doing: (‘it’s going down’, ‘let’s go’, ‘make it stop’, ‘want it again’, ‘that was fast’, ‘it’s so slow’).
  • Dress-up: Use scripts to choose clothes (‘I’m gonna wear this’ ‘that’s a lovely hat’, ‘let’s choose shoes’).
  • Tea Party: Use scripts to ask for and share (‘I want more’, ‘more juice’, ‘give me this’).
  • Building Blocks: Use scripts to describe what you’re building (‘a tall one’, ‘that’s so big’, ‘it’s a house’).
  • Dolls/Stuffed Animals: Use scripts to act out scenarios (‘it’s time to sleep’, ‘let’s eat’, ‘he’s crying’).
  • Arts and Crafts: Use scripts to describe colours (‘a red crayon’), actions (‘let’s draw’, ‘I’m gonna paint’), and feelings (‘I’m happy’, ‘that’s so sad’).

3. Model, Model, Model

This is key! As you play, constantly model using your child’s AAC system.

  • Point to the picture or word or script you’re using.
  • Speak clearly and slowly while pointing.
  • When using core words for either Analytical or Gestalt Language Processors, try using good phrases. For example, instead of just saying ‘juice’, say, ‘you want more juice?’

4. Make it a Team Effort

Get everyone involved! Encourage siblings, grandparents, and caregivers to use the AAC system with your child during playtime. The more consistent the approach, the faster your child will learn and feel confident using their voice.

5. Celebrate Progress, Big and Small!

Every step counts! Acknowledge and celebrate your child’s efforts, whether it’s reaching for their AAC system or successfully using a core word. This positive reinforcement will keep them motivated.

Remember

  • Playtime should be fun, not stressful. Don’t force your child to use their AAC system. Let them lead the way and follow their interests.
  • Every child develops at their own pace. Celebrate your child’s unique communication journey.
  • Seek professional help when needed. Your SLT can provide tailored strategies and resources to support your child’s development.

By incorporating AAC and core words into playtime, you’re not just fostering communication; you’re creating a space for your child to thrive, explore, and build strong connections.

So, grab those toys, power up your AAC system, and get ready for a playtime adventure filled with fun, connection and, therefore, communication!

Don’t hesitate to contact me!

Sonja McGeachie

Early Intervention Speech and Language Therapist

Feeding and Dysphagia (Swallowing) Specialist The London Speech and Feeding Practice

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 do we play with our Gestalt Language Processors?
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How do we play with our Gestalt Language Processors?

Image by Freepik

Child-led therapy

When working with Gestalt Language Processors, it is always advisable to use child-led therapy. What does that mean? Child led therapy involves following a child’s interests and allowing her/him to lead the play activity throughout the speech and language therapy session. In other words, instead of having my own ideas of what we might want to play with or what activities I might try and use, I provide a range of toys I know the child likes or has played well with before; then I wait for the child to pick what she/he enjoys doing.

Play can be very repetitive and we can often see our child cycling back to the same one or two toys throughout the session. But this is what she/he needs to do at that time and it means that we have focused attention and engagement. This in turn is very helpful for the therapeutic process, which is to offer great scripts and phrases/words alongside what she/he is playing with.

Monotropic minds

Often the mind of autistic children is more strongly pulled towards a smaller number of interests or hobbies as I like to call them. Dr Dinah Murray, Dr Winn Lawson and Mike Lesser have found in 2005 that autistic people have ‘monotropic’ minds. They explain that autistic children focus their energy on a narrow range of activities as the energy required to switch between several toys is much higher than we would see in the neuro-typical population.

Gestalt Language Processors are often also Gestalt Cognitive Processors. This is when experiences are retained as episodic events and memories. An event is remembered by specific parts of the same event. And, therefore, these specific parts should always be part of that event, when the event is repeated.

Should any of the specifics be changed or are missing, then this can cause great upset to Gestalt Cognitive Processors. So, for example, if the last two times in speech therapy we had the train set out and this was played with happily, then this becomes a specific part of the whole session. If, I then don’t offer the train set the third time a child comes to see me, this could be very upsetting.

This is why I tend to try this out and see what happens. Usually in the 3rd or 4th session: I might not bring out the car run that has hitherto been super successful to see if we are able to transition well to other toys. If yes, then we can have new experiences but if not then I will re-offer the car run/or whatever toy pretty quickly so as not to cause complete dysregulation.

A few pointers below which help with child-led play:

Introduce a few new toys and see what happens

Parents are encouraged to bring some familiar toys their child likes to the session. We can then introduce a couple of different toys to see how we go. Try offering a new toy alongside the familiar one; try offering new toys without the familiar one present, but be prepared to re-offer the “old” toy should our child get upset.

Rotate toys and don’t offer out too many toys

I find that children can get overwhelmed and overstimulated by too many items out all at once. I always talk to parents about toy rotation at home and I encourage storage and ‘tidy up’ of toys so that we can increase attention focus, and also maintain freshness and new interest in older toys.

Some children are not yet ready to play with toys

Here I suggest people games: these are games where the adult becomes part of a more motor-based activity. Some call it ‘rough and tumble play’ but it can be nursery rhymes such as sleeping bunnies/row row the boat or peek-a-boo for the younger ones.

Copy/Imitation is so important – try getting two identical or similar play items

When we are copying our child, it is often not desirable to ‘take turns’ with their toys/blogs/cars etc as our child may not be ready to let us take a turn. Instead, if we have the exact same toy that our child is having then we can play alongside our child and copy them perfectly without interrupting their play.

References:

Murray, D., Lesser, M., & Lawson, W. (2005). Attention, monotropism and the diagnostic criteria for autism. Autism9(2), 139-156.

If you need help with your child, please do not hesitate to contact me.


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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Neurodiversity affirming Speech and Language Therapy
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Neurodiversity affirming Speech and Language Therapy

Introduction

I am a neurodiversity affirming therapist and I love and endorse play-based therapy. I use it alongside a strengths-focused approach in all my sessions. Find out why we should use these transformative therapy methodologies in all our work and play with our children.

I always have a range of different toys and activities up my sleeve so that when one toy is no longer interesting, that’s fine. ‘Look here’s a new one, how about we try this one?’ When therapy feels like play, children are more likely to be engaged and attentive, which leads to better outcomes.

By using play as a context for Speech and Language Therapy we can create opportunities for children to use and practise their communication skills in a natural, real-life setting. This helps bridge the gap between the therapy room and everyday life.

Goals and targets

What about goals and targets I hear you say? Of course, as Speech and Language Therapists we always have our goals for any particular child. They can be speech goals (we want Bobbi to produce a ‘k’ sound at the end of words) or communication goals (we want Fatima to ask for something by pointing to it rather than grabbing it). And these goals can be achieved where there is a reciprocation and a positive, playful relationship between the adult and the child. That relationship comes through play and fun.

Play and fun

Play is how a child interacts and learns. If it’s fun, interesting, exciting or pleasurable then that is where the magic happens. And that is what we need to return to repeatedly and then see if we can fold our targets into the activity as we go.

As soon as we expect our child to do something and we try and shape their behaviours towards a certain outcome we no longer ‘play’. We are now in teaching mode, where we direct and where we are ‘in charge’. As a neurodiversity affirming therapist, I believe that all play is valid. We must not get into the trap of thinking that only functional play is valid, that there is only one way to play with that car ramp/puzzle/potato head. Our autistic children often need to play in a particular way to navigate their world and we must not try and stop that.

When we affirm and validate our child’s play and copy their play with enthusiasm and respect then, in my experience, all children regardless where they are on the neurodiversity spectrum will begin to engage with us, copy us, and learn how to communicate effectively about things that matter to them.

Play-based therapy allows therapists to tailor interventions to each child’s unique interests and abilities. This individualised approach increases the likelihood of success and progress.

Strengths-Focused Speech Therapy

Strengths-focused therapy emphasizes a child’s strengths and abilities rather than their deficits. It recognises that every person has unique strengths that can be harnessed to overcome challenges.

Focusing on strengths helps us build a positive self-image. This is especially important for children with communication disorders, as it can boost their confidence and self-esteem.

When we encourage children to play in ways that they enjoy and are good at they feel empowered and more in control of their lives and play. This can lead to increased motivation and a sense of ownership over their progress.

Now, imagine the powerful impact that can be achieved by combining play-based therapy and strengths-focused therapy in speech therapy sessions. This dynamic combination brings out the best of both worlds. It creates a therapeutic environment that is not only effective but also enjoyable for children and their families.

As Speech Therapists we can use the child’s strengths and interests as a foundation for play-based activities. This personalisation not only makes therapy more engaging but also more effective.

An example

Charlie, a 3-year-old with social communication challenges, had a deep interest in anything that spins. We used this strength and interest to create a variety of spinning activities. As he is allowed to engage in his spinners, we can practise lots of speech and language and provide great phrases alongside his interest and activities: Ready steady go! Stop! ‘another one’ ‘the red one’ ‘again again’ ‘I love it’ ‘it’s a spinner’ ‘Charlie loves this toy’ ‘it’s going fast’ ‘it’s so fun’ etc..

Over time Charlie started to copy some of these word models and then used them to create his own little phrases, such as ‘the blue one again’. When this occurred, we felt like celebrating because it had come naturally and appropriately to the situation without any coercion or direction. That is what communication is about! Well done Charlie!

Conclusion

Play-based and strengths-focused speech therapy approaches are powerful tools and by combining these approaches, we create a therapeutic environment that is not only effective but also enjoyable and empowering for our clients.

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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Rethinking the PECS Approach
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Rethinking the PECS Approach

I want to talk about some concerns of SLTs, parents and increasingly autistic adults who explain to us how this communication method did not really work so well and why.

What is PECS in a nutshell:

PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) is based on the idea of exchanging pictures in return for desired items. For more advanced users, it is used to communicate different functions such as emotions, comments, negations using the exchange of a sentence strip. It was founded on the principles of Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA).

How does that look in practice?

In my experience, having been trained in the approach myself, the overall aim is eventually for the child to spontaneously go and get their picture book (PECS book), open it, look through a range of pages to select the correct picture of what they want to have or say, then go and find their communication partner, and finally place that picture onto the communication partner’s outstretched palm to be rewarded with an item or with a response of some sort. Or the child selects a range of pictures to create a little sentence, such as: ‘the blue fish swims in the sea’, ‘the red bird flies in the sky’ or ‘I see a red bird’ for example. This can be part of a structured table top activity.

The system follows a series of phases, starting from simple picture exchanges to eventually construction of sentences using symbols. PECS’s aim is to promote communication initiation and reduce frustration for those who struggle with speech.

So far so good one might say, why not? Before I go into the various concerns, I would want to add my own working experience with PECS, and whilst it is my opinion, I would say I have NEVER seen a working PECS book being used spontaneously!

My experience

I have seen attempts of stages 1 and 2 done quite well, in schools, and where people knew that I was coming in “to have a look at how PECS is working with child X”. Yes, in those instances an effort was made of course to try and show me how it worked. I must add that have never been very impressed. I cannot recall it used for any other items than: biscuits/quavers/crisps/ raisins and bubbles/puzzle pieces or spinners.

If we want to see a child trained to exchange for these items in a structured setting, i.e., the child sits at a little table with the adult sitting opposite enticing the child with one or other item, then yes that can be done successfully. I have seen children exchange 25 pictures with a crisp on it, for said crisp and they might have asked for another 25 of those crisps given half the chance. Yes. Good. But. I have yet to see a child go to their PECS book and go through all the motions that I mentioned above to get a crisp. In school they don’t need to: they know that crisps are only available when the PECS book is being practised. Otherwise, let’s be honest, it’s fruit at 10.30 am!

So, they don’t get a spontaneous opportunity to ask for highly motivating items as that is not how school works, is it? ‘SIR! Can I have a crisp?’ At 10.02am, in the middle of maths? Didn’t think so… So in reality this does not get practised in my experience.

A few concerns in no particular order:

Limited Generalisation

One issue often raised is the limited generalisation of skills learned through PECS. The structured nature of the program may result in a child only being able to communicate effectively within the specific contexts where they were taught to use the system (as I suggest above: crisps: yes, please let’s do the PECS for it). This limitation can pose challenges when trying to apply communication skills in new or unstructured/spontaneous situations.

Lack of Spontaneity

Critics suggest that PECS can sometimes lead to scripted and less spontaneous communication. This is also what I have observed. Since the method is designed to follow a structured progression, there is a concern that individuals might struggle to initiate communication outside of the established framework, potentially hindering their ability to engage in more natural interactions.

Narrow range of communication functions being practised

While PECS is quite successful in focusing on requesting and naming items, there are many other important communication functions, such as expressing emotions, asking questions, giving opinions or greetings for instance. We can argue that a communication core board where we have a whole range of different core words available lends itself much better to practising a range of communicative functions.

The Pictures are movable

They are attached to the book via Velcro. They are constantly being picked and exchanged and then returned to the book. This means that the pictures tend to be always in different places. This goes against the motor planning that takes place when one is learning a new skill: imagine you want to learn to touch type and the letters always move and are at different places? How can you be quick about finding a letter? You can never get to “automatic” with this type of approach.

Communication is not taught via behavioural means

Only if you say “banana” in the way that I dictate that you should will you get a piece of banana. Who does that? Nobody. Typically, child points to the counter where there is a banana and says: ‘ba’ or ‘ana’ and mother/carer will look over there and say ‘oh banana! You want a banana? Ok there you go have a piece.’ Or something like it. Mother will not say: ‘SAY BANANA or else you won’t get it.’ Child hears mum saying ‘Banana’ each time and with time will point and say ‘banana’ or ‘I want-a-nana’ or something. This is how communication is learned: through the adult modelling it cheerfully all day long and the child hearing it and then gradually copying it.

One other gripe I personally have but I am reliably informed by all my parents that they share this about PECS:

IT IS SO LABOUR INTENSIVE!

There are 10, 50, 100’s of little pictures that first of all need laminating… then velcroing, then finding and replacing. As I said above, it’s a constant moveable feast for one, but also you LOSE them. Yep. You want to find the picture for “trampoline”. ‘Where is it? I saw it yesterday… We had it outside when we practised you asking for the trampoline. I am sure we put it back? Where is it??? Ok. We need to print off a new one.’

It is also labour intensive for the first stage where you need to have TWO adults to ease the exchange (pick up and release of picture into the communication partner’s hand). Who has two adults available for what can be weeks until the child is able to pick up and release by themselves?

YEP. So it’s really not for me you can tell! I much prefer Core boards (see my previous post on using one) or electronic speech generating AAC devices like GRID, or LAMP or TOUCHCHAT. These are all great to use and there is good support out there for introducing these.

Finding a Balance

While the concerns surrounding the PECS approach are valid, it’s fair to note that the method also has some merits. There is anecdotal evidence of many individuals who have successfully improved their communication skills and quality of life through PECS. But, finding a balance between using PECS as a stepping stone and ensuring the development of more comprehensive and SPONTANEOUS communication is key.

As educators and therapists, we need to extend the focus beyond requesting and labelling by incorporating symbols that represent emotions, actions, and more complex ideas. This expansion encourages a broader range of communication functions. When the time is right, gradually transitioning from PECS to more advanced communication methods such as Core boards or electronic AAC tools and speech-generating devices is the way forward.

We want to value all communication equally and our approach ought to be playful and child-led and to focus on intrinsic motivation instead of extrinsic rewards and reinforcers.

If you have any questions or if you are looking for a therapist who endorses play-based and child-led therapy approaches, please do reach out.


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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