‘Listen! I have a voice!’ To offer AAC (augmentative and alternative communication) to a child who either can’t, or won’t, speak is an amazing moment. When they realise that they can communicate by sharing pictures, symbols or by pressing icons on a device that speaks for them, their delight is instantaneous and infectious. We have access to an immense range of methods to support communication - from low to high-tech; from the simplest ‘yes/no’ on pieces of card to complex devices that can be controlled by Eye Gaze alone.
To give a child a voice allows for more than is at first apparent. Our whole lives are based on the four key aspects of communication: reading, writing, listening and speaking. When we experience barriers to any, or combinations, of these, our routes to express our needs, thoughts and emotions are challenged. Our personality is suppressed, as so much of human interaction is based on words spoken, shared and understood.
When a child with very limited communication has no AAC support, the educators work incredibly hard to interpret any communication channels being used, however this inevitably leads to an interpretation of any message which is problematic…
Misinterpretation is inevitable, especially if the intended message is complex or unexpected in terms of context or stimulus. A reductive, practical ‘guessing game’ approach often ensues with a series of yes/no queries to try and identify the correct message. This may work if the message can be identified in such a manner, but what if the child wants to express love, or tell a joke, or wants to tell of something remembered and therefore not in current context?
The inevitable outcome if the intended communication is not successful is negative, perhaps frustration or anger; more worrying is the child who retreats and gives up trying. No matter how well intentioned, and how well an educator can ‘read’ a child, it is still the case that the communication is deciphered and therefore the child is not in control of the process.
So, having established that all of us not only need to have an accurate voice, but also have the right to have this supported effectively, there is a long-established route for working with and learning vocabulary. The term ‘core vocabulary’ was defined by Cross, Baker, Klotz & Badman (1997) as:
“a small set of simple words, in any language, that are used frequently and across contexts.”
The introduction of core words to AAC was a major move forward from simple choice making and requesting, for which only a series of nouns and verbs were needed. The core vocabulary (think high frequency words in reading) allows greater permutations of utterance, complex sentence structures and the ability to creatively play with language. We can move from simple guesswork; choices of preferred drink, snack or activity, to combinations of words that offer or request information; qualify understanding or remove misunderstanding; create and comment on mood and atmosphere, and enter into social communication opportunities as an active rather than passive participant.
Having been an active user of Clicker to support all aspects of literacy in the classroom, across all subjects, I had often created grids to use for those who struggled with speech. For many years, access to devices that offered a voice was firstly a very expensive option, and secondly only available after a long process of assessment. Clicker allowed me to use the classroom computer and the speech function of cells to let students join in with classroom discussions. By using and adapting the many grids available on LearningGrids, they could demonstrate their knowledge, or ask questions about our current curriculum topics. The advent of tablet technology and the combination of portability and price brought a new layer of AAC provision. Now, in addition to the low-tech resources and the very complex speech output devices with many other access functions, it is possible to have an app-based ‘voice’ on smartphone or tablet.
What works for me is that the app offered by Crick, Clicker Communicator, functions in the same way as other Clicker products, so there is no new learning curve and there is a direct relationship between the range of products. There are Communicator grids online to download and use or adapt, and you can also create your own. Core vocabulary has been present right from the start, thus encouraging a language learning approach and not restricting the choice of words available to be used. This is differentiated within three levels, all with a consistent appearance and layout, which supports progression and language learning but equally provides opportunities for experimentation and challenge. So, there is a portable voice, with immediate access to unrestricted core vocabulary and grids of topic-based or fringe vocabulary options - what more could we want?
Watching children in a variety of unstructured moments during the school day, the formal ones such as playtime or lunchtime but also those where they chat, joke, play games and talk about current interest topics, I began to consider how the child who relies on AAC can be active with their peers, or indeed, how they can be the leader or direct activities in pairs and group situations? Take a LEGO challenge, such as the ones commonly used as free choice, wet play or afterschool club activities; how could the child participate if perhaps they also could not manipulate the bricks? Starting to experiment with this, by creating grids that offer size, shape and colour of bricks, combining this with common phrases needed for both construction and encouragement and, of course, with recourse to the core vocabulary and keyboard, a child is able to become the director of the build! Empowerment and leadership; control and the responsibility of ensuring eventual success, now lie with the child, rather than yet another activity scaffolded and without challenge.
This has led to exploration of many other such situations and the way in which we can take Clicker Communicator beyond the curriculum, beyond the core. Playing Battleship, directing dance moves and playing word games such as I Spy, there is so much more for us to try, to provide, and to enjoy. Giving a voice is only the start, now the real fun begins!