Braxton surprised us all today.
Using his talker, he told us he wanted to play his ABC Game. We gave him his dedicated play iPad with the app and had his talker next to him. The game showed the letter B and the animated image that goes along with it. Suddenly, Braxton reaches over to his talker, opens up the alphabet page and finds the letter B. We all halfway thought it was an accident but reinforced it anyway “Yea that is a B, good job, Braxton!” Then, the C comes across the screen and again Braxton goes to his talker and finds the C. Then Braxton skips ahead a few letters but goes back to his talker when he recognized a letter. We screamed and cheered like our favorite team had just won the championship.
Braxton got through the alphabet and correctly identified about 8 letters completely on his own, completely unprompted, and quite intentionally. We had him go through the alphabet a second time and I caught some of it on video, again he identified several letters. That was not what we were working on in speech or the current activity, but a HUGE milestone that we would have never reached if he only had a limited program with a few words or phrases available to him.
This taught me a few things and also reinforced some of our current ideas about AAC.
- He is paying attention when we teach. We have been working on using the iPad not just for requests, but to talk about what is going on around us and what we see. Often, when Braxton is playing with a toy or an app on the iPad, I use his iPad to show him the object is also on his talker and he can tell me things about it, or just identify it. I just want him to know that he has that word to express. I show him the word, I guide his hand so that he has to push the button to speak the word. Sometimes he is interested and sometimes he looks the other direction with a big grin purposely defying mom or his speech therapist. But, today, he did exactly what we have showed him, but completely on his own. That’s Braxton for you, he will do things when he is good and ready to do them and not a second earlier.
- We need two iPads. I have seen a few recommendations to support the idea that beginning AAC users should have two devices. One should be solely dedicated to communication, so that the user understands that this is a communication tool and not just another game or object for entertainment. The other can be used for learning apps and games. We have a school provided iPad and one that was given to us through DARS. Braxton has his communication app on both iPads, but uses the school one primarily for communication. We use the 2nd iPad to model and have back-and-forth discussions with Braxton using his app. We also allow free-play and exploration with the play iPad and Braxton will often exit out of his game to open his speech app to say something and then go back to his game. Having two iPads available at all times eliminates the need to exit the app to discuss it or to discuss an unrelated topic while still enjoying a game or movie.
- Early AAC Users NEED a Robust Communication System. After today, I think back to the early programs we used and even the first school recommendation and I realize that Braxton would not have been able to do what he did today with any other communication system we have used. Even Speak for Yourself required some programming, BUT the key is that I had ABILITY to do this. Some people choose to use the internal iPad keyboard to learn letters and for a while, I did consider doing this. However, with Braxton’s limited fine motor skills, he kept opening the keyboard when he was trying to access a word, so I disabled the keyboard. I know that pre-literacy skills are important and that his class focused on a “letter of the week,” so I decided to create a page on the device specifically for the alphabet letters. Boy, am I glad I did! We wouldn’t have known otherwise that Braxton knew and recognized his letters! Thanks to the “Babble” feature in Speak for Yourself, Braxton has access to ALL of the words on his system and not just the few words we have open. In Babble, I have learned that Braxton knows more than we thought, as he finds new words and often uses them correctly. Again, not something that was possible using more limited communication apps. Having access to a robust vocabulary means that Braxton is able to show us what he knows.
- Let the AAC User lead. When I am working with Braxton alone or even in Speech therapy, we often get caught up in trying to MAKE Braxton pay attention to us and follow our lead, that we forget that allowing the student to direct the lesson can also be extremely beneficial. If Braxton were a speaking child, many of our lessons would cater to the things he likes and motivate him. i.e., kids that love ‘Thomas the Train’ often have lessons or activities about trains to motivate their speech and help them reach their goals. Sometimes we fail to remember that children who cannot speak also have likes and topics that motivate them. We had every intention of working on identifying Body Parts today and Braxton was having none of it. When he reluctantly cooperated, we rewarded him by letting him choose an activity. He chose the ABC game and consequently showed us that he recognizes letters and understands how to use his device properly. Had we made him stick to identifying body parts today, we wouldn’t have reached this milestone. It’s okay to sometimes let go of the plan and see where the user takes you; they just might surprise you!
- Re-inforce Communication as if it is Intentional, ALWAYS. I read something a while back that stuck with me. I follow so many blogs and pages about AAC that I am forgetting exactly where I saw this, but I’m pretty sure it was on Dana Neider’s Uncommon Sense Blog Page. Someone had asked a question along the lines of “How will my child know this app is their voice?” and Dana bluntly responded, “When you start treating it like one.” She wasn’t being rude or anything (at least that’s not how I took it), but at that moment I thought, “She’s absolutely right.” How else is a child supposed to learn that this is a tool to help them communicate? If we constantly say “Oh, that’s not what you meant” and direct the user to ‘say’ something else, or worse, if we ignore the user altogether. When a child is learning to speak and they babble “ma ma” or “da da,” what do we do? We immediately respond, “That’s right I AM momma” or “Are you looking for Daddy?” The child then learns that “ma ma” or “da da” will get your attention and that’s how they learn ‘mommy’ and ‘daddy.’ When an AAC user hits a button, we assign meaning and help them learn when we respond appropriately. Braxton ‘accidentally’ found hugs on his talker, and when I responded by saying “Oh, you want a hug” and gave him a big bear squeeze, he quickly learned what that button meant and that he liked it, so it’s now his favorite request. Even when Braxton is playing or accidentally opens Babble, I will talk to him about any word that he opens and his face lights up as he realizes I am listening and will either find the word again or say something else, like ask for a hug, once he has my attention. Avoid thinking your child is ‘accidentally’ saying something and always treat it as though he purposefully saying something so that you can help to assign meaning. THAT is how he learns it is his voice.
Moments like today show me that what we are doing is working and it was the right path for us. It is easy to get caught up in the work and feel like you are not making progress, but when the day comes that everything falls together just right, there is no greater reward. I am so proud and so amazed at the progress Braxton is making with his Communication App, Speak for Yourself. I will openly admit that some days we are not the best at using the app, modeling, and following through, but no matter how often we use it, it’s available and Braxton now understands it’s purpose. I love seeing him figure things out and using the skills we have worked so hard to achieve.