AAC Goes to School An SLP shares big-picture lessons learned from serving as an AAC specialist in schools. School Matters
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School Matters  |   February 01, 2017
AAC Goes to School
Author Notes
  • Kerry Davis, EdD, CCC-SLP, works at the Spaulding Outpatient Center for Children in Lexington, Massachusetts. She has a special interest in children with complex communication disorders and AAC, and provides pro-bono support for Step by Step School for Autism in Guyana, South America. kerrydav@gmail.com
    Kerry Davis, EdD, CCC-SLP, works at the Spaulding Outpatient Center for Children in Lexington, Massachusetts. She has a special interest in children with complex communication disorders and AAC, and provides pro-bono support for Step by Step School for Autism in Guyana, South America. kerrydav@gmail.com×
Article Information
Augmentative & Alternative Communication / School-Based Settings / School Matters
School Matters   |   February 01, 2017
AAC Goes to School
The ASHA Leader, February 2017, Vol. 22, 40-41. doi:10.1044/leader.SCM.22022017.40
The ASHA Leader, February 2017, Vol. 22, 40-41. doi:10.1044/leader.SCM.22022017.40
What separates working in a public school from all other places is the need for resourcefulness. On any given school day, you could glance into my purse and fish out a small screwdriver set, batteries, and random laminated pictures of a toilet and Thomas the Tank Engine (not to mention a half-eaten granola bar), all of which I’ve used in some way to work with students.
My resourcefulness has helped my students who use augmentative and alternative communication (AAC). I’ve figured out how to meet their IEP goals by building opportunities for learning AAC outside of individual treatment sessions.
In my more than 20 years as a speech-language pathologist across varied clinical settings, I learned the most during the 14 years I spent as an AAC specialist in a public school.
As one of a handful of such specialists in a total-inclusion district, I traveled to evaluate and serve students scattered throughout several schools. This arrangement forced me to get creative in how I served them.
Here are some of the big-picture lessons I learned.
Make the IEP a collaborative document
The IEP provides a place where disciplines and service deliveries overlap. By educating the entire IEP team, I often completely eliminated a “speech and language” objective section. A majority of our students who use AAC experience weaknesses in expressive language, which affects their ability to access the curriculum across math, science and even recess. So when the IEP team sits down to review AAC for a student, educate them to also consider how AAC can support a student’s academic learning as well as social interaction—also important for success in school.
For example, a student using a high-tech device who struggles with the concepts of “many” versus “few” in math can access those basic vocabulary concepts through any programmable system available on the market today. Students working with low-tech systems use their devices to focus on those concepts in addition to numbers, shapes, colors and sizes. These concepts can be built into motivating activities; if the student likes blocks, for example, the SLP can model how to request for the big, blue block when building a tower.
The final point about viewing the IEP as a collaborative document involves ownership. When spread across multiple areas, such as math, English, science and social skills, the student’s use of AAC isn’t just the responsibility of the SLP, but also of the entire special education team. If you start prefacing benchmarks with the phrase, “Using AAC the student will …” then it’s less likely for AAC use to fall through the cracks.

Within schools, developing AAC skills means exploring ways to integrate AAC into social opportunities on the playground and promoting positive attitudes of acceptance toward use.

Strive for communicative competency
Communicative competency describes how people who use AAC fully access opportunities to interact and connect with family, peers, teachers and other communication partners (bit.ly/AAC-CommCompetence). It includes developing competencies not only in using language, but accessing their devices to communicate as independently and efficiently as possible for a variety of purposes. Competency extends beyond just making requests. It includes developing skills in:
  • Operational competency—knowing how to navigate through the AAC system to communicate.

  • Strategic competency—adapting to environmental obstacles hindering AAC access, and using multiple forms of communication if possible.

  • Linguistic competency—demonstrating the language skills needed commensurate with developmental expectations.

  • Social competency— using language via AAC for a variety of social functions—such as commenting, conversing, providing information—to develop relationships with others.

  • Psychosocial compentency—developing a positive attitude, perseverance and motivation to use AAC.

Within schools, developing these skills means exploring ways to integrate AAC into social opportunities and promoting positive attitudes of acceptance toward AAC use. Building acceptance can include modeling AAC use with peers and educating teachers and parents how AAC—as an extension of a person’s voice—doesn’t have to be daunting or intimidating.
Sometimes less is more
Students take their AAC devices into their homes and communities, so sometimes this means using a combination of high- and low-tech solutions, depending on the context. A robust low-tech solution may be more practical for a child at swim lessons, minimizing damage risk and parental stress. The goal is communication, so given the option of something or nothing, a low-tech option can fill the gap depending on the situation.
Also, not everyone gets as excited as we do when a child gets their device. In fact, support staff might feel intimidated or even annoyed about “one more thing” to learn. Start slow. Encourage paraprofessionals to sit in on your session, so you all learn together. Provide one or two words or target phrases each week and ask the paraeducators to report back on successes and challenges.
Communicate these target words or phrases with families to practice at home. Over time and with practice, everyone will become more at ease. This familiarity usually translates into more opportunities for your student to use AAC. Increased opportunities, in turn, help develop a positive association with AAC. Eventually students, families and other educators will view AAC devices less like work and more like a part of communicating and living everyday life.
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February 2017
Volume 22, Issue 2