Teaching Strategies for Augmentative Communication

When we teach children to talk, we talk to them. When we teach children to use sign language, we sign to them. Why is it that when we want a child to use pictures to communicate, we DON’T use pictures to them? Most of the time, we place a communication device in front of a child and expect him to use it …automatically. When the child doesn’t use it, we take it away and report that the child “does not understand representation”, the child “does not have cause/effect”, or the child “is not ready”.

Does the child understand representation? When you are introducing pictures for communication use a graphic that resembles the item. Picture communication symbols made with BoardMaker are simple line drawings. If the printed word is not under the picture symbol, then it is difficult to determine what the picture represents. For example, here are three pictures. Which ones do you understand best?
snow snowman snowfall

Does the child have cause and effect? Many educators question the child’s ability to understand cause and effect (I do something that causes you to give me a cookie). According to Jean Piaget, most normally developing children attain this skill between 8-12 months of age. Children with motor difficulties may have the skill, but are unable to demonstrate it. This includes children with autism who exhibit apraxia (motor programming). Find something motivating for the child and provide an easy means to get it. Teach the skill of “giving to get” and you may be surprised.

Is the child ready to communicate? I have never met a child who wasn’t ready to communicate. Even students with significant disabilities who are blind and deaf will communicate when they are happy, sad, or uncomfortable. As adults, we have the power to attach meaning to a child’s vocalization, movement, or facial expression. When a young child reaches up towards the adult, we attach meaning by lifting the child up, saying “up you go”. We can do the same with different types of movements from children with disabilities. Communication can be powerful so teach the child the power of communication.

Give as many choices as possible throughout the day. If you don’t have pictures, use the actual objects. If the child is a beginning communicator, attach meaning to movement. For example, when dressing, hold up two pairs of pants and ask, “Do you want the green pants or the blue pants?” If the child looks at the green pants, then say, “Here are the green pants” or if the child reaches toward the green pants, say “you must want the green pants”. Once the child is communicating, you can start using linguistic representations (pictures).

When reading books, hold up two books and ask, “which one?”. Once the child can communicate his choice, you can use pictures. Take digital pictures of the book covers to use on a choice board. You should also take pictures of the characters in the story so when you ask “wh” questions you have a means for the child to answer.

Many children have their favorite movies, TV shows, and songs. Put two representational pictures in front of the child and ask, “Would you like ____ or ____?” (as you point to each one). If the child looks at his choice, assist him to point or give you the picture as you say the title. In the beginning, try to avoid mixing and matching the categories as we learn new vocabulary by mentally placing the linguistic word or picture into a virtual file folder in our brain. There are two ways to expand:

Add more pictures of the category (TV show, movie, song) from which to choose.

Teach the child to tier down by first giving a choice of TV show, movie, or song, then after the child chooses; present the child with pictures within the category they chose.