We often believe that by handing an AAC system to a child, we have empowered them with communication. But communication is complex and has myriad purposes. Our end goal for the child should be that they go beyond using scripted language in their AAC communication devices and develop communication autonomy.
Communication autonomy for AAC users means the ability to express themselves freely. It also means that the user gets to dictate when and what they choose to communicate. An AAC user should have the liberty to initiate communication or respond on their own accord. There is a tendency to confuse communication autonomy with ideas that do not denote autonomy. Having clarity about what communication autonomy is not,will help in understanding this concept better.
- It Need Not be Independent Communication
A user with motor disabilities may require assistance for communication using the AAC system. But that does not mean that they are not capable of autonomous communication. Communication autonomy is more about an individual’s thoughts and the free will to express them. The user should be able to establish this autonomy in spite of their dependence on others for navigating or manipulating an AAC device.
- It Need Not be Sophisticated
Communication autonomy does not have to involve structured language with syntax and grammatical accuracy. The AAC user can use simple language, and even be single word communicators. If they wanted to talk about a tiger during lunchtime because the colour of the chips reminded them of their favourite animal, they should be able to do so. From random observations to opinions and comments, their communication can be as frivolous or significant as they intend it to be.
- It Need Not be About Choice-making
Choice making is indeed an important attribute we should aim for. But that may not be the communicative function that means the most to the child. Talking about the fascinating new game they played at school or letting the parent know that they miss their friend might be their priority. And the ability to say these things that are at the forefront of their minds, the things they cannot wait to share, is the autonomy that we should aspire to achieve for them.
Factors Affecting Communication Autonomy
You may not carry the AAC system while going to the park, because you think the child is going to be running around anyway. But what if they wanted to tell you about the butterfly they saw by the swing, and the vibrant colours that caught their attention. Shouldn’t the child always have the means to express their delight, distress, and all the emotions that lie in between?
This is why accessibility is vital. Encourage multimodal communication and use a combination of high tech apps with low tech strategies to ensure that child has access to a communication tool at all times.
Each child is different and has varied interests and passions. Their vocabulary in the AAC system should be extensive and include words related to their specific interests and surroundings. A neurotypical child would choose any word they want to speak from their verbal repertoire. Similarly, AAC users should be given the opportunity to choose from a huge repository of words that matches their vocabulary so that their expression does not get restricted.
A communication partner must be willing to listen and must be open to all forms of communication. They should presume that the child is trying to communicate something meaningful and attempt to figure out the intent. Knowing that their ideas are valued will encourage the child to express themselves with confidence. The communication partner’s inclination to listen to what they have to say also boosts their self-worth, and gives them the reinforcement to form opinions and convey them without hesitation.
For a child with communication challenges, the AAC system is their voice. So, the child must be taught how to use the AAC system using Aided Language Stimulation, also known as modelling. It might take an AAC beginner a while to master the device. Parents and teachers must be patient and model consistently until the child gets a grasp of the AAC system and its features. Their proficiency can be a major factor in how effective and diverse their communication is.
Neurotypical children develop their language skills by listening to words spoken around them all the time. These utterances are not planned and happen naturally. We must strive to create a similar immersive environment for AAC users too. While modelling language, we must make sure they the child is exposed to as many instances of modelling as possible.
While creating modelling opportunities can be a good approach, we must also focus on unplanned communication. All the AAC communication partners should be in sync, and prioritize communication autonomy for the child. This ensures that their spontaneity and creativity is not inhibited. This in turn will lead to the child’s communication being as rich and dynamic as their potent minds.