"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 realize 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. Fortunately, 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 stock to complex devices that can be controlled by Eye Gaze alone.
Giving a child a voice allows for more than is 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 of these, our routes to express our needs, thoughts, and emotions are challenged. Our personality is suppressed since 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 understand the 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 questions 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 communicate about something remembered and therefore not in current context?
The outcome, if the intended communication is not successful, is negative, perhaps causing frustration or anger, or more worryingly, causes the child to retreat and give 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 voice 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 and 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 with students 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 help 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 a smartphone or a 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 (for example, playtime or lunchtime and times where they chat, joke, play games, and talk about current interest topics), I began to consider how children who rely 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 at free choice time or after-school activities. How could children with speech difficulties participate if they also could not manipulate the bricks? By creating Communicator grids that offer size, shape, and color of bricks, and 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!