To support their communication, students with communication support needs require:
- A functional means to communicate/a functional communication system (also known as Augmentative and Alternative Communication, or AAC)
- Teachers and aides who are trained in using the student’s communication system
- Teachers and aides who train, prompt, and allow sufficient time for, a student to use their communication system in a variety of contexts (eg requesting, responding, peer to peer interaction)
- Opportunities to communicate with classmates and peers
- Arrangements in place to expand the vocabulary and topical materials contained in the student’s communication system as required
- A communication plan (forming part of the student’s Individual Learning Plan) that identifies short term and long term goals, strategies and progress measures relating to communication skills.
Underpinning all of this is the need for the student to be supported by people who don’t have preconceived expectations about the student’s abilities or lack thereof.
Here is a video explaining the different types of AAC:
Independent Living Centre WA has some great suggestions for providing opportunities for students to practice using their communication system/device while interacting with peers:
- Play games in groups that require giving and following instructions. The student using AAC get a turn to give the directions. Try ‘Simon Says’, or ‘What’s the Time Mr Wolf’. Program pre-stored phrases in (“It’s dinner time!”).
- Create opportunities to interview or conduct surveys of different people in the class and school. What colour is liked the most in class? Which football team do people support? Perhaps you are doing a maths task on graphs and the students’ job could be to conduct a survey to get the information for the graph. Cook something and get feedback from the class. What did it taste like? What should we make next time? Work in pairs with the student using AAC asking the questions and a peer taking a tally.
- Work in small groups and have the students complete a task that requires them to communicate and work together. Bake something together (What will you make? What do we have to do next?). Write a poem or a story – the student using AAC could suggest characters, places etc.
- Perhaps once a week you spend 5 minutes having class conversation or structured news time where students share something about themselves or something they have done. This news can be pre-programmed into the device with the student before this activity or programmed at home. You could also do this as a writing task using the device to support vocabulary and sentence structure.
- Get telling a few jokes. Perhaps before home time you spend 5 mins telling jokes as a class. The student can participate by having them pre-prepared in their device.
“It has taken me as a parent, with intimate contact with [my child] as well as training in psychology, education and research, many years to develop a mindset which included debunking many of the things I learned or assumed about severe autism.”
“Out of my Mind” by Sharon M Draper (2010) is an engaging, easy to read book that addresses the issue of the consequences for a child of misplaced presumptions of intellectual ability/disability.
Find more information and tips on supporting an AAC user here:
- American Speech Language Hearing Association
- Anne McDonald Centre
- Communication Matters
- ISAAC Australia
- Speech Pathology Australia
- Speech Science
- Gesture/body language;
- Manual sign (e.g. Auslan);
- Handwriting, typing;
- Non-electronic visual displays for the user to point to (including photos, pictures, symbols, words/phrases, alphabet board), e.g. simple laminated cards or sheets, or more complex arrangements such as:
- Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)
- Pragmatic Organisation Dynamic Display (PODD)
- Talking mats
- Electronic visual-based tools (often with speech generating option) e.g. Compass, Grid, NovaChat;
- Speech generating devices, whether purpose-built e.g. Lightwriter, Go Talk, or generic e.g. table device – with or without specific software such as TouchChat, Proloquo, Novachat.
Please note: students may progress from using one system to another as their skills develop. Depending on a student’s physical and/or sensory needs or limitations, additional tools may be required to enable the student to select a picture/word/letter etc, for example, eye gaze, switch scanning, or a head pointer if they cannot use their hands.
Here is a video showing how AAC is helping a non-verbal boy communicate:
Here is a parent discussing how a communication system can be suitable for different needs and stages:
Implementing a communication system
Teachers/school staff should find out if the student has a speech pathologist already working with them. If not, the student’s family/support group should be contacted to discuss how to engage an appropriately experienced speech pathologist. This may be through the relevant state/territory education department, which usually employs speech pathologists. It is important to check that the speech pathologist has expertise in AAC and specific experience with the particular diagnosis and/or learning profile of your student, as well as experience with the communication system necessary/appropriate for your student. Note that not all departmental speech pathologists may have this expertise. Furthermore, often departmental speech pathologists do not work one-on-one with students, so most AAC users will require an external speech pathologist. Avenues for accessing suitably experienced speech pathologists include:
- AGOSCI; click here to search for an AAC professional
- Assistive Technology Australia
- Autism Tasmania
- Cerebral Palsy Alliance NSW
- Cerebral Palsy Education Centre VIC
- Communication Access Network VIC
- Inclusive Directions SA
- Independent Living Centre WA
- Lifetec QLD
- Northcott NSW
- Novita SA
- NSW Speech Pathology EBP Network
- Speech Pathology Australia
Funding for communication aids/devices
There are various funding programs for communication aids across Australia. Some of the funding programs are listed below. The introduction of the NDIS is likely to affect the way communication aids are funded for some people.
Funding for communication aids is provided through various government programs, including:
- ACT Equipment Scheme
- Enable NSW – Aids and Equipment Program
- Independent Living Centres (Australia Wide advice & information)
- NT Disability Equipment Program
- QLD Medical Aids Subsidy Scheme
- QLD Community Aids Equipment and Assistive Technologies Initiatives (CAETI)
- SA DHS Equipment Program
- SA Equipment and Assistive Technology for School Students
- VIC Non-Electronic Communication Aid Scheme (NECAS)
- VIC Electronic Communication Device Scheme (ECDS)
- WA Community Aids and Equipment Program (CAEP)
A referral from a speech pathologist is usually required to access the aid/device/s through these schemes.
Note: these schemes generally cover the cost of the aid/device but not the training to teach a student or communication partner/teacher to use it, nor the ongoing monitoring of their progress. Funding or subsidies for training may be available through other programs – speak to a speech pathologist for details. These costs may, in some circumstances, be covered through the NDIS (see NDIS section in the funding topic).
Using the system in the classroom
For more suggestions on supporting your student to use their communication system in the classroom, see: Independent Living Centre WA’s “54 Tips And Tricks For Implementing Alternative And Augmentative Communication In The Classroom”. This Spectronics blog post also has some useful strategies and advice.
Training for students and staff
Teachers/aides/school staff also need to be aware:
- of any sensory processing challenges the student faces; (for example, a student may feel the touch of a keyboard to be very uncomfortable, inhibiting their development of typing skills);
- how this can affect learning and communication, including how the student will or can use a communication system; and
- that in addition to speech pathologists, occupational therapists and psychologists may need to be involved in developing a communication plan.
Depending on the student’s own skill level with using their communication system, there may also be a need for the student to access regular ongoing speech pathology sessions for a period of time. Users of communication systems are broadly classified into three skill levels:
- “emerging” – where the student has no reliable means of symbolic communication;
- “context dependent” – where the student’s communication is limited to particular partners or contexts
- “independent” – where the student can use their communication system to interact with both familiar and unfamiliar partners on any topic
An “emerging” or “context dependent” student requires regular speech pathology sessions. During these sessions, a speech pathologist with the relevant expertise works with the student alongside key staff (eg teacher or aide), supporting, and modelling how to support, the student to access the curriculum via the communication system. This needs to continue until the teacher/aide is able to support the student with this themselves across all relevant curriculum areas and activities. The speech pathologist may also need to be available beyond this – for all skill level AAC users – for occasional consultation with school staff to provide additional guidance, support, and to monitor and evaluate the progression of communication skill acquisition.
Where the available departmental speech pathologists do not have the requisite expertise to provide this training, the school or department is required to fund the engagement of a suitably experienced private speech pathologist to work with the student to expand their communication skills, and at the same time train key staff to provide this support. This is considered a reasonable adjustment to ensure the student can access their education.
The regularity of these sessions and length for which this arrangement continues is dependent on what is considered “reasonable” in the individual circumstances. Just as students without disabilities are expected to expand their vocabulary and communication skills term by term, so too should this expectation be placed on students with communication disabilities. Timeframes appropriate for the individual student need to be applied – it can be slower for some students, particularly those with a combination of communication, motor and/or sensory issues, where numerous compensatory strategies may already be utilised by the student.
Presuming competence and applying realistic timeframes that take into consideration the student’s particular challenges is key. For students with severe autism, for example, additional challenges may include:
- Heightened feelings of stress
- Greater need for rapport/familiarity to be able to interact with people
- Movement difficulties, such as initiation and perseveration
“It was many months into the intensive ABA program which we had instigated that [my child] got the notion that words stand for things, and that these labels would remain the same. It was only when he turned 7 that he was finally able to devise the strategy to understand language, a process in which words are translated into visual images, much like what Temple Grandin wrote about in ‘Thinking in Pictures’. There are many more compensatory strategies that [my child] devises to get around the unique ways his mind works to deal with everyday requirements.”
The Cerebral Palsy Education Centre (“CPEC”) supports many students with complex communication needs entering mainstream schooling, and they are widely regarded as having a very successful record in this. It is their holistic approach that underpins this success.
A student supported by CPEC will typically undergo the following:
- all required equipment and information about sensory and movement needs is identified and obtained prior to school commencement
- CPEC staff go into the school after the ENQ process is completed and help school staff understand the key issues for the student’s participation and learning, including discussion on successful strategies
- students have AAC system in place prior to starting school
- AAC specialists come into the school on a regular basis
- school staff are trained in listening to, and communicating with, the student who uses AAC.
“Undertaking PECS certified training has been the key difference for my children. The training explained how to support them to progress through the phases. Making sure parents and teachers both do the same certified training is extremely important.”
Updating communication systems
Having a plan agreed between teacher, parent, speech pathologist as to how this is managed can be extremely valuable. For example, it’s a good idea to establish a designated updater so it is clear whose responsibility this is. Also recommended is regular meetings between relevant people (e.g. parents, teachers, speech pathologists) to confirm what changes are required.