If you work in a school environment, you’d probably find it impossible to put a number on how many times you say ‘hello’ in a day.
It might not be a formal ‘hello’ for everybody you greet but perhaps a “Hiya”, “How are things?”, “Morning!”, insert favourite colloquialism here…..
Initiating communication may appear to be one of our most basic social skills. Yet for children and young people who use alternative forms of communication (AAC), it’s not always so easy.
There are 3 distinct styles of initiating communication that I often see when working with children who use AAC:
1. Conversation Starters– children who will independently vocalize/sign/use their communication book or device to gain attention…These children have got it nailed!
2. Conversation Waiters– these are the children who rarely initiate communication but will generally respond when someone else starts the conversation,
3. Conversation Launchers– the children who will launch into a conversation before they have even got your attention. This may be by using their communication aid to say a random word or phrase!
Let’s face it; it’s not just children who use AAC who experience these problems- I have been known to be a ‘conversation launcher’ myself at times! I think what makes it more difficult for someone using AAC is that words are particularly precious- Most people who use AAC want to get their point across in the quickest way possible. For some of the children who I work with, this means bypassing the beginning of a conversation, while for others it can all seem too effortful.
Why does a conversation need a starting point? Well, without one, there is often an immediate breakdown in communication. The child may want to say something but their communication partner may be looking away or engaged in something else. This can lead to frustration or confusion. As for Conversation Waiters, they may become passive; never actively requesting, commenting or asking questions. Relying on prompts can really restrict a child’s ability to communicate freely.
So I thought we would start our series on ‘AAC and Social Communication’ with 3 tips on how we can work on supporting children to initiate communication. I’ve considered Conversation Waiters and Conversation Launchers separately under each heading as both groups need different types of support.
So let’s get started…!
1. Work on quick and easy ways to gain attention– Gaining attention is an important skill. Lots of the children who I work with develop their own non-verbal way of doing this- one young boy knocks on the tray of his wheelchair, another girl vocalizes, while another young man signs ‘book’ to indicate that he wants to use his communication book…
a) Conversation Waiters: Some children need support to hone a non-verbal method into an effective way of initiating communication. Speech Therapists sometimes use a sneaky but totally worth-it approach that we call ‘sabotage’! For example, I might place an exciting wind-up toy nearby and just leave it there. When the child vocalises or uses a body movement, I reinforce this as their attempt to initiate communication by saying, “Oh you want to have a look?!” The child begins to attach the power of gaining attention to that movement or vocalisation.
b) Conversation Launchers: This group of children know what they want to say and they want to say it quickly! To support them to do this, I often work with them to come up with a pre-stored message to initiate communication. This is usually something such as “I have something to say” or “Give me a minute”. This lets the child 1) start the conversation and 2) gives them time to formulate what they want to say next. For children who use communication books, recording a message on a switch such as or “I want to chat” can also be a good way to gain attention. Alternatively I’ve seen ‘I’ve got something to say’ wristbands. The child can raise their arm with the wristband to demonstrate they want to talk.
2. Work on greetings- I run a weekly communication group with 8 children who use different forms of AAC. In the group, we always start by greeting each other. Everyone has a different way that they like to say hello- one of the boys likes to wave, while another young girl prefers a formal “Good morning!” using her communication aid. It’s important to ensure that a child using a communication aid as has access to a range of greeting words. After all, we don’t say ‘hi’ to everyone in the same way!
a) Communication Waiters- Some children will need prompts to initiate a greeting . I came across this fab prompting hierarchy recently (see below) from Positive AACtion. The idea is that we gradually phase out prompts so that the child can eventually initiate communication independently.
b) Communication Launchers: Chat with the child about how they might use different greetings for different people. You can do this through role play or better still, real life experiences. Talk about how they would greet someone new vs a friend, etc! You can model using different greeting words using their communication aid.
3. Work on how to read (and use) non-verbal cues- When a child uses AAC, it can be difficult for them to both look at their communication system and look at the person they are communicating with…and this can lead to issues. How do we know someone is ready to chat to us? We read their body language, wait for their eye contact. We also use this information to set the tone of our interaction by observing a person’s mood. It’s important to discuss with children and young people who use AAC the need to look up; to look at the person they want to chat to before starting a conversation.
It’s equally important for us as communication partners to look at the person who is communicating and not their device or communication book.
a) Communication Waiters: When a Communication Waiter makes eye-contact, this is often a sign that they want to go beyond waiting and initiate communication. It’s important for us as communication partners to pause at this point. Giving the child a bit of time and an encouraging smile might be all they need to get the ball rolling!
b) Communication Launchers: A Communication Launcher might initially need some extra prompts to look up to check that the person they want to talk to is ready to chat. Discuss body language and emotions. Encourage the child to think about how they might start a conversation with a friend who looks upset vs a friend who looks excited.
And a few final ideas…
- If you work with a particularly enthusiastic Conversation Launcher (!), a social story can be a great way to introduce the steps to initiating communication and to remind the child in a positive way as to how they can do this.
- If you are struggling for ways to really motivate a Conversation Waiter to initiate communication with others, try a field trip! Maybe a toy shop, a cafe or a theme park might be just the catalyst the child needs to initiate communication! Provide them with the vocabulary they need (or a recorded message on a switch), model what to do and then wait!
- Praise the child for successful attempts at initiating communication. Give them specific feedback e.g. “I like how you used your switch to get Lily’s attention”.
So now that we have some ideas on starting a conversation, I’m going to put pen to paper and consider part 2 of this mini-series! In part 2, we’ll consider turn-taking and topic maintenance. Feel free to tweet me if you have any thoughts or suggestions!