Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) affects a great number of children and often these children have difficulty communicating and, in some instances, cannot verbalize their needs or thoughts at all. In addition to having an applied behaviour analysis team these children benefit from speech therapy.
This by no means, should suggest, that these children understand less, but rather, they just have difficulty expressing what they understand. Speaking is one of the most effective ways of communicating and it allows us to successfully interact and navigate our way through life. However, for many ASD children, they do not have this option and sadly, therefore, have a greater challenge to having their needs and wants understood.
How can Speech Therapy help?
If you are a parent of an ASD child that is non-verbal or struggles with communicating, this can be very stressful and overwhelming. It is important to know that there is help. To date, numerous tools and programs have been developed to aid in these communication and language development barriers. These are known as Alternative and Augmentative Communication (AAC) systems.
AAC is an alternative method of communicating, outside of traditional speech, that has been developed to assist children with communication and language developmental issues. These systems can be added to your child’s existing speech therapy programs, however, they can also introduce new and alternative ways of dealing with communication issues.
AAC is a way to provide your ASD child with the ability to relay their thoughts and needs through alternative ways that include the use of pictures, gestures, sign language, visual aids or speech-output devices such as an iPad or Tablet.
These AAC systems give your child access to their right to communicate and helps to ensure that their needs are being heard, taken into account and addressed. Every person deserves the right to share in the decisions surrounding their care and well being.
Sounds liberating, (not only for your child but for you, the parents and caregivers), doesn’t it? Taking the guesswork out of what your child is trying to communicate helps to reduce stress, for everyone, and opens up the opportunity to build stronger relationships between your child and the rest of their social and support network.
Here is a breakdown of the types of AAC – Unaided and Aided & Low and High Tech
Unaided systems – These systems don’t require the use of any equipment. Gestures, facial expressions, body language and sign language are some examples of unaided systems used to communicate.
Aided systems – These systems use tools or materials and can be either low-tech or high-tech. Some examples of low-tech are symbol boards, choice cards, communication books, alphabet boards or cards. High-tech examples include speech-generating devices (SGD) or communication devices and AAC apps on mobile devices.
Below I will further elaborate on four of the aided systems that I feel may be helpful with your ASD child’s path to achieving successful communication.
Picture Exchange Communication Systems (PECS) – This program is a tool to aid in communication with non-verbal ASD children. PECS is a program where pictures of desired objects are exchanged (such as clothes or food) as a way of communicating. These pictures can be photographs, digitally created images or hand-drawn pictures.
When a child wants something, they would hand a picture of the desired item to their communication partner (the parent, peer or care-giver) in exchange for the desired object. PECS begins with a basic request which will be extended to include sentences and eventually comments as well.
As with most things that are of value and worthwhile, this program can take a long time (months) to become independent. It also requires special training and materials and is able to be supervised by anyone who has taken the PECS training (usually speech therapists or BCBAs).
While some children will be able to pair a vocalization with the exchange, PECS itself does not teach the use of vocal language. Creating a ‘verbal’ child is not the goal but rather creating a ‘communicative’ child is the end goal.
Speech Generating Devices (SGDs) or Voice Output Devices – These are hand-held electronic devices that when a child presses a button or flips a switch, the device will play pre-recorded words or phrases. These SGDs allow non-verbal people to communicate electronically. Therefore, in its most basic form, if a child would like a banana, they would press a picture of a banana and the device would then say “banana”, “banana please”, “I want banana” or I would like a banana, please” (or some other variation) in a pre-recorded human voice.
Three examples of apps that can be paired with designated devices or used on tablets or iPads to become SGDs are:
TouchChat HD with WordPower – Although this is one of the most costly communication apps on the market, this program offers a range of options that far outweigh the competition. Utilizing Its voice recording capabilities allows you to touch individualized set-up cells and the program will then conveniently speak.
LINGGO – This is a mobile app used on an iPad or tablet that’s currently in beta testing. It was created by a team led by a behaviour analyst in Toronto. The app lists words that are most used and relevant to the child’s daily needs, preferences and social activities. Linggo learns the language patterns of its users through machine learning. Linggo also aims to enhance literacy by transitioning the learner from using picture based communication to written words and phrases.
Linggo also encourages vocal speech in the learner with the optional time delay feature to allow time for the learner to vocalize before the app. One of the most exciting parts of Linggo is that it gathers data on the learner’s independent vs prompted communications which will help the speech therapy team fine tune the teaching program to achieve maximum learning and communication.
LAMP Words for Life – This is an AAC app that is available for the iPad. It is based on the motor planning theory of language acquisition. It utilizes pre-designed vocabulary pages that do not require much individualization or adjusting. This allows the user to transition between pages without having to re-learn the positions of previously acquired words. There is evidence to suggest that children can become more proficient AAC users using motor planning because there is less searching for icons and specific phrases or sentences become almost rote.
Now that you know about some of the AAC systems, implementation may be another challenge. Finding professional help can be useful and will play a very important role in your child’s communication development. It is important to work closely with a Speech Therapy team to ensure that you are using the correct AAC systems.
Some AAC programs can be quite costly, you want to be sure they are worthwhile and effective for your child’s specific needs. A Speech Therapy team will often include a Speech-Language Pathologist, a communication disorder assistant or speech therapy assistant. The Speech Therapy team will take into consideration which AAC is appropriate and valuable for your child and will be able to address the many questions you will have. Furthermore, they will create and implement a program that will work with your child at their current stage of communication development and capabilities.
Some advantages of AAC as described by users include:
- Improved ability to communicate
- Stronger friendships and relationships
- Increased ability for social interactions
- Improved independence
- Increased involvement in decision-making and autonomy regarding their lives
- A feeling of being respected
- Access to employment and volunteer opportunities
- An improvement in physical and mental health.
AAC systems have proven to be tools that can open up doors for your ASD child by empowering them to communicate their needs and wishes. Through the set-up of a well-designed communication program with the help of a Speech Therapy team, including the use of AAC tools and consistent practice, your child will find that a whole new world of opportunities can become available.
If you would like help developing your child’s communication skills using AAC or otherwise, please contact us to set up a no-charge consultation today.