AAC for autistics 101: part two!

You can read Part 1 of this post here, focusing on assessing autistic people for AAC supports. This second part gives tips on interacting with those of us who already use AAC and helping advocate with us for communication rights.

Whatever AAC supports you and the autistic person have selected, it’s your job to model as constantly and thoroughly as you can! If the only input nonspeaking autistics are getting from people around us is speech, at best we are going to develop self esteem issues from the implicit message that our communication isn’t normal, or at worst we will never learn to use our AAC supports at all. Please teach our caregivers how to use our AAC supports so we are getting consistent input in a useful modality throughout the day and across every setting.

Along with modeling, please provide us with as much vocabulary as possible as early as possible! The AAC field has historically often fixated on teaching requesting, but every autistic person has the right to all communicative functions. This includes refusal! That is actually a really important thing to introduce along with other vocabulary for self-advocacy; being able to say no is important for our safety and self-determination. As another example, if you think we are not capable of commenting on preferences or sharing opinions, and thus don’t give us the vocabulary, you have made us automatically and ongoingly not capable of commenting on preferences or sharing opinions! And please make sure from the outset autistic communicators have vocabulary for talking about our special interests and favorite objects; we are more likely to want to learn our AAC method if we can use it for conversations that excite us.

As early or often as possible try to teach us how to customize our devices and add vocabulary for ourselves. Don’t see yourselves or our caregivers as the sole moderators of our access to communication. And don’t overstep your bounds in assessing how we use our devices. Many programs have a history or tracking feature that can help you analyze what words we’re using, but looking at this without our consent is a privacy violation.

Some other thoughts on working with AAC users… Never take away our device (or light tech supports)! They should always be within reach. I have had my device taken away and it is such a helpless feeling. Even if we are using our device for what seems to you to be non-communicative, for example echolalia or vocal stimming, and even if it’s getting really really annoying, we still deserve access. You probably sometimes sing along to the radio, which is essentially socially acceptable echolalia/vocal stimming, but no one tapes your mouth shut. Give us the same autonomy. The one exception to this is if the needed objects might get damaged, for example in a swimming pool. If this is the case try to get our consent before just taking it away, and have a backup like a small laminated communication board or at least a system for answering yes and no questions while in that environment.

Ask each AAC user directly how we prefer to interact. Some of us want communication partners to be silent and patient while we type, other people would appreciate you trying to guess the ends of our sentences so that it is less work for us than having to spell everything out. We might like a device set to speak each letter or word as we type it or we might want to compose messages silently and play the whole thought at the end. Some of us want to keep our screens private and express ourselves with speech generation, other people would rather you read along as we type. No matter what an AAC user prefers along these lines, use your relative position of power as a professional to teach peers and caregivers how to interact with us respectfully. Make sure we are invited to our own IEP meetings and other services planning meetings so we can express our own goals for our communication, and make sure people talk directly to us rather than to our caregivers and assistants. I have had doctors ask my support person questions about me while I was sitting right there, it’s really patronizing.

Another thing to consider is helping us use our AAC system to connect to other people and places, not just face to face. We may want to make phone calls – can we use text relay for that, or put our devices on speakerphone? Can our devices access emails and social media so that we can copy and paste the sentences we write using symbols directly into other apps? This is important not just for our social lives but also for self advocacy. For example, we might want to call a hotline to discuss our rights in benefits programs. We deserve to contact our senators and representatives about policies that affect us, and most autistic adults have the right to vote even if we are under guardianship. Think about whether our AAC supports will give us access to these activities that are part of living a full life.

Okay, that’s the text of the presentation I delivered to future SLPs! As I give more presentations like this I will probably refine and add and cut and edit, so maybe someday I’ll update this post, but for now this is a good summary of what I’d say to professionals fairly new to AAC for autistic people. Please feel free to pass it along to anyone you think might be interested!

Are you an autistic who uses AAC? Please let me know below what else you would want to tell people at an intro level by commenting below.

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