I normally try not to be as abrasive as this post’s title suggests, and I don’t want to scare you away from using AAC around your kid (or another emerging communicator you know) – it’s so important. Where I’m coming from here is that I suspect you deeply care about this person in your life, and I also suspect you can do better. Caregivers aren’t given nearly enough resources to learn how to support the new AAC users they know. I’m sure, if I was the primary support person in a young AAC user’s life, I would be on a learning curve too! Because I don’t have much formal training around emerging first language skills, and moreso modeling isn’t how I was introduced to AAC, please take these recommendations with a huge grain of salt – if you have the opportunity to learn from people who actually grew up being introduced to AAC via modeling, listen to their point of view over mine. But as an AAC user myself who has spent some time engaging with emerging communicators and their caregivers, I think my thoughts on this might have some ideas you need to hear. It’s really important to say from the outset that it’s difficult and probably unwise to make blanket recommendations for modeling, because every nonspeaking person has such different needs – in fact, many of my points below are not intended to be “if you’re doing this thing you’re definitely absolutely doing it wrong” and moreso “if you’re assuming this is definitely absolutely the best way to model please seriously question it before proceeding”. Also, as you’ll see below, I sort of take issue with the standard vision of what modeling even means, so understand that I might be using this term in a different way than you are used to. With that understanding, please read on!
1. You’re not modeling. It’s been several hours since you touched a letterboard. You’re not sure whether the talker is actually charged. You’ve been spending much more of your time with the emerging communicator speaking than using AAC. In my opinion, this means you are not modeling enough. For me, self-directedly learning a symbols-based AAC app as an adult who was already fluent in receptive English and expressive written communication took so much dedicated practice and focus – and that was after I’d already spent a significant amount of time organizing and programming my own layout and choice of images. I can’t imagine trying to learn a symbols-based app that was solely designed by someone else at a stage in my life where I was still struggling to understand what was going on around me and what the nature of language even is. If you feel like you’re getting nowhere with modeling your kid’s AAC, the first thing you can do is model more than you’ve been doing.
Or maybe some of you have given up on AAC completely – you started to casually introduce a method or two, but after a few weeks or a few months of the nonspeaking person showing no interest, you set it aside and tried to make the best of the situation. But do you realize how much speech you were exposed to before you began to speak? An average 18-month old has heard more than 4,000 hours of people speaking to them and around them. Was your AAC user exposed to 4,000 hours of seeing an AAC method (one that’s well suited to their needs) used to them and around them before you gave up? For some AAC users, they will only need 400, 100, 10 hours – but some might need 5,000, 8,000, 10,000. For nonspeaking people with processing issues or other receptive language impairments, learning to use AAC will be more difficult than an average nondisabled baby learning to talk. Have you put in the time and effort to truly be able to say you gave it a good go and your child just isn’t able to or doesn’t want to communicate? Pick the AAC back up. Model more often and longer than you did the first time around. Don’t give up. Many of us are on different developmental timelines than an abled person, but if your nonspeaking child can find and learn a communication method that works for them – whether that’s a few months from now, a few years from now, or as an adult – I can almost guarantee their quality of life is going to be so much better.
2. You’re modeling. But… you just said… Yes, I did. But I want to take apart the preconceptions you might have about modeling. So many people think of modeling AAC as sheerly teaching, guiding, or coaxing. I challenge you to re-create your understanding of modeling and begin to use it primarily as communicating, as having a conversation. If you truly want your nonspeaking child to be able to communicate using AAC, that is what you need to model. Not:
[on device] Want cookie. Want cookie.
[then, in speech] “Do you want a cookie, Johnny? Say want cookie!”
Rather, please literally just use the device to say “I’m getting out cookies for snack, Johnny, do you want some?” That’s it. That’s what you’d say to a nondisabled child you expect to learn to speak, right? So use AAC to say that. Besides the actual demonstration of where to find all those words on their device, you are also demonstrating that it is okay and normal and good to communicate using AAC. This will have not just a more immediate impact on the chance that your child will pick up AAC, but a lifelong impact on their self-esteem as a nonspeaking person. I know personally, growing up with only people speaking around me, I deeply internalized the idea that speech was a superior form of communication, and I’m still unlearning that years into my journey as an adult AAC user. By using AAC to truly communicate with your nonspeaking child, you are directly showing them that they are valued and loved and respected, not just a bucket to be filled with communication skills.
3. You’re taking the nonspeaking person’s voice away to model on. Our AAC should be considered an extension of our body that you don’t have a right to touch without our permission. So if it’s at all possible, please make a duplicate of your child’s system to model on so that theirs always remains with them. For high tech AAC users, the most ideal form of this would be to have their same app on a separate device – for example, installing the Proloquo app that your child has on an iPad on your own phone for you to model on. Now, as a poor person, I absolutely realize that cost is an issue here. You might not have two devices in your household. The app you use might require you to pay twice to put it on two devices, and that could be prohibitively expensive. This is totally the reality for many families. If that’s the case, there are some other options to look into. Printing out each folder of your child’s high tech app means you can point to the same symbols they’re used to in the same layout they’re used to in a paper binder – or at the least, their home screen on a single hard copy communication board. This leaves their device with them for whatever and whenever they want to communicate, and teaches them that they have agency and autonomy over their own communication. If for some reason there’s really no way to have a printout either, I’d say, at the very least normalize asking your child before you touch their device. Maybe they don’t have a reliable yes/no indicator yet – but still ask, every single time. Convey that this is something you realize you need consent for, whether or not they are currently able to give it. If you’re not sure what their answer is, go ahead and say that before proceeding. “Okay, I’m not sure what your answer is, so I’m going to go ahead and use your device, but you can take it away anytime.” When they do get to a point where they can express yes or no – in whatever form, even if it’s grabbing the device out of your hands – respect those answers.
4. You’re not using complete sentences. Maybe you noticed the way I phrased the cookie example above. I think that for many nonspeaking people, just like many speaking people, the best way to learn how to form complete sentences is to be regularly exposed to them from day one! This certainly isn’t universal – especially if you have evidence your child has receptive language problems, it might indeed make sense to go with the usual recommendation of modeling just one or two more words per utterance than they already use. And it’s not like it’s unheard of for parents to say things like “you want cookie?” to children learning how to speak. But I truly think that recommending that practice across the board for AAC modeling severely misses the point of “presume competence”. Not being able to form speech sounds reliably doesn’t inherently mean children are incapable of understanding and learning to use full language with the vocabulary and grammar other people are used to, and for many of them there’s no reason to introduce it only gradually. Yes, look for evidence that suggests they might need you to simplify your grammar when you model, but don’t start from that assumption. If you speak things to them like “Do you want a cookie, Johnny?” and expect them to understand that, you may as well be modeling the full sentence on their AAC instead/too. Not nonsense sentences like “cookie want?” or “more yes” that you would never say to a speaking person.
5. You’re still intimidated by the AAC system, or don’t feel comfortable using it to express yourself. If you, an adult with decades of experience using language (and tech) in general are feeling too intimidated to use your child’s talker, how do you think they feel? I really think you need to know their device (or letterboard, etc) inside and out if you want them to ever be able to be able to use it confidently. Yes, this can take a huge amount of time and practice. But what wouldn’t you do for your kid? Think of it like learning a foreign language – you need to set aside time every day to practice, not just with them but on your own. Once they’ve gone to bed, read books “aloud” to yourself using their device. Repeat dialogue from the TV show you have on in the background. Use the search function liberally if you’re not sure where to find a button, and then practice that motor pathway two or three times after locating it to help internalize it for next time you need to find it. Be patient with yourself, this isn’t necessarily going to come quickly. The more time and effort you put into learning how to use your child’s AAC system, the more effective you will be at modeling – not to mention, you’ll have a greater appreciation of just how much exposure to it they really need before you can start expecting them to use it themselves.
Okay, like I said at the outset, there’s probably no one perfect way to model AAC because every nonspeaking person is so different, but I hope this post has challenged you to rethink some of the typical suggestions you might have heard for how modeling Should Always Be Done. (Psst. I might follow up this post with a bonus +5 more signs in a few days, keep your eye out.)
Did you grow up with people modeling your AAC system? What did you like/not like about their approach? Please comment below!