Thursday, January 30, 2014

Being a Good Communication Partner

        I spend a great deal of my time training people to be good communication partners to children learning to use aac systems and learning to communicate.  There are some simple key things that I stress - that seem to be more complex than they sound.
It may sound obvious, but the first  two items - creating a positive communication environment and responding to all the student’s communication attempts - aren’t as simple as they sound.  It means being responsive to a child’s communication attempts all the time.  Responding to whatever the child does to attempt to communicate can be difficult - especially when there are other people and activities in the environment.  Subtle movements and behaviors can sometimes escape our notice.  And when we’re busy with other children, how can we always respond to just one?  It is, indeed a juggling act.  But if we make it a priority to respond positively to all students, I have found that we can make it feel to all students like they are being heard (or seen).  
      The hardest part, actually, seems to be getting parents and teachers alike to ask more open ended questions.  Asking yes/no questions has become a habit.  It is often the only way they have gotten responses they understand from the student(s).  But if we're going to grow language, we need to ask more open ended questions, so that students have the opportunity to make more complex responses.
The third - using the student’s aac system to talk to him - is really key.  Using partner aided input - also called Aided Language Stimulation - makes all the difference in the world.  Parents and staff sometimes get the “deer in the headlights” look when I start to talk about this.  But we walk through the child’s day and choose 1 activity to start with.  Only when the adults feel comfortable with using pictures to communicate during that activity do they move on to another.  This way, ALgS happens more consistently and is not abandoned.


Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Answering Questions

I was doing an evaluation the other day, with a boy who really hit home to me the issue of being able to answer questions.  It's an issue dear to my heart - as evidenced by my app (QuestionIt).  But every once in a while I am jolted back to the realization that we simply aren't teaching these kids this skills, which is sooooo critical.
One of the most difficult skills I have found during my 34 years as a speech-language pathologist to teach to students with autism and other severe language learning difficulties is how to answer Wh-questions.  Research has shown that students with language delays actually learn how to answer Wh-questions in about the same order as typical kids.  They just learn them later.  Typical children do develop more successful strategies for formulating acceptable responses to Wh-questions.  And, as we might expect, the ability to understand and respond with the general category of information required by the type of question develops a while before the ability to provide the correct answer.  There are studies that have shown that children - both delayed and typical - from 3-7 are significantly less successful in figuring out what category of information is needed, and providing the answer requested; especially when the question refers to something not immediately in front of them.
While children with delayed language development may acquire skills with questions along the same general line as typically developing kids, we don’t know nearly as much about how kids with language learning disorders figure out how to answer Wh-questions.
Over the years, I have accumulated many responses to Wh-questions from my students/clients.  “Where do you sleep?”  “At night.”  “When do you sleep?”  “In bed.”  And many of the children with whom I’ve worked simply repeat the last word heard, “sleep,”  if they talk at all.
In order for these children to learn how to answer questions, they need first to be taught how to figure out what kind of a word is needed, and how to access these words in their vocabularies.  That sounds logical, but many interventions focus more on learning rote responses to typical questions that actually teaching the strategy.  And knowing what kind of a word is wanted to answer what kind of a Wh-question is crucial in learning the skill.


Answering Wh-questions is something that our children are asked to do on a daily basis.  In school and at home, we are always wanting to know what did they do, who did they do it with, where were they, when did they do it.   Where did the character go, when did this important event happen?   What is he doing?  From the most basic communicators to general education students answering questions is an important language skill that is the basis for much of our interacting.  Imagine having a conversation without being able to ask and answer Wh-questions.  Social interactions would come to a standstill.  And for too many of our children, this is exactly what happens.
I'm not asking anyone to rush out and buy my app - really.  But I am asking teachers, therapists, and even parents, to consider making this a priority for their students.