Fifth graders at Robinson Elementary School in Hazard, KY love having Kelby Johnson in their group for class projects. He is smart, funny, easy to work with, pays attention and gets things done. Best of all, he has a kind heart.

Kelby’s cousin Donna Smith, a sixth grader at the school, looks forward to when he stops by her locker to say hello, sometimes with a gentle hug. Such moments have a way of taking her back to when they were small. Kelby would pull Donna or her brother Kain by the hand when he wanted to join them in games or activities. Or he simply walked away when he didn’t feel like playing.

Non-verbal because of his autism, Kelby has always communicated by making gestures, showing pictures, pointing or writing. All are OK for getting simple messages across, but let Kelby share just limited amounts of information. Those who’ve known Kelby all his life or see him every day know he has way more to say.  So, people are super excited that Kelby has a more complete way of letting others hear his voice now that Tobii Dynavox Compass software on an iPad is his main mode of communication.

We met Kelby when he made the local news in his hometown back in the spring when he gave a presentation using Compass at a Special Needs Awareness Evening in a neighboring school district. His budding advocacy means a lot, said his mother, Amanda Johnson. “Now he can tell people what it’s like to live with autism.”

Kelby told a captive audience that he wants to be known as a regular kid who likes hanging out with other kids and is eager to make new friends. Frustration and silence have been lifted from Kelby’s interactions, thanks to the technology, while others have a new appreciation for who he is as a person.

“It’s just been awesome,” Mrs. Johnson said. “Totally awesome.” She delights in the revelation of her son’s lighter and more serious sides now that he has a reliable means of self-expression.

kelby-schoolworkIn the past, Mrs. Johnson said, Kelby expressed important things, like the hurt he felt when peers teased him for being different, by crying. Now he can channel his feelings into words and talk it out. Kelby’s strong receptive language skills have been obvious all along. But now his sense of humor, with a dose of gentle sarcasm now and then, emerges as he speaks through the technology. Unafraid to utter “Duh” at his own—or a loved one’s—honest everyday mistakes, Kelby is also not shy when it comes to letting others know when he is too busy for small talk. His cousin Donna likes the Quickfires feature on Compass because he can voice such things simply without typing every word, a perfect workaround for his motor planning issues. She likes that he listens, too. Once when they were doing homework together, he heard her tell her mom she didn’t know how to answer a science question. Kelby walked over to her and showed her the correct response using his Compass app.

Amanda Terry became Kelby’s classroom aide when he started preschool. She took the job because she wanted to work at the same school her daughter attended. Soon they became a nice extension of Kelby’s family. Amanda Terry knew little about autism spectrum disorders then, but she quickly identified what she has always considered to be the only thing separating Kelby from typical students in his classes.

“In a classroom you couldn’t pick him out, except that he can’t talk,” she said. “That’s really his biggest challenge.”

Mrs. Terry saw early on that Kelby liked language. She also knew his potential to do more with it by how well he matched words with corresponding picture symbols on an app and mastered new vocabulary as easily as his peers. Mrs. Terry wanted to help Kelby fill whatever gaps his inability to speak created. She recalled her enthusiasm when his mom asked her to come over to their house to check out the Tobii Dynavox Compass app she had found online. When Mrs. Johnson asked for her opinion on whether the software would allow her son to branch outward in his development of language, literacy and social communication skills, Mrs. Terry gave two thumbs up. After a free trial period with the software, Kelby’s mom bought him the app and got a second iPad for it.

“When he was first starting,” Mrs. Terry said, “it was very important to keep that separate from his other iPad because he associates that with fun time.” For Kelby fun goes beyond tablet computers. He likes swimming, skating, beach vacations, ATVs and motorcycles. He likes the weights, swings, weighted blankets, exercise balls and other items that ease his sensory challenges.

When you meet Juan, you want him for a friend. He’s kind, fun, bright, dependable and resourceful. Simple, silly things like watching cartoons or riding a swing make him smile. Oh, and he’s an excellent writer and loves animals, especially white tigers. That’s why “Tiggy” is his nickname.

What we really like—make that admire—about this 25-year-old gentleman from suburban Chicago is how graciously he deals with all that life has dealt him. It’s easy to understand why Juan holds fast to his freedom as well as his dreams, given the multiple challenges that his autism, cerebral palsy and post-traumatic stress disorder present.  Because of his physical limitations, activities like holding a pencil, cooking, walking long distances or climbing stairs can be problematic. Interacting with others can be unsettling because Juan is primarily non-verbal.

But Juan takes life as it comes and focuses on the good things. There’s the prospect of returning to work at a pet shop when his current round of occupational and physical therapy ends. Juan contributes to the world through his writing. His insightful blog is a steady source of untold encouragement to readers. Then there’s Allie, his gentle canine buddy. The Australian cattle dog/Great Dane mix is also a trained service dog and rarely leaves Juan’s side. Together, they navigate the surroundings when out and about. Allie keeps Juan safe whether he’s walking or in his wheelchair.

“She helps me with lots of things,” Juan says. “She provides deep pressure hugs to calm me down. She licks my hands to stop self-harm behaviors during a meltdown. She helps me stand up from sitting.”


Most precious to Juan is his six-year-old daughter. He calls her Esperanza and they have a great relationship. He is also friendly with her adoptive parents. On their frequent visits, Juan talks with his little girl using the Tobii Dynavox T10 that has been his primary mode of communication for the past two years.

Juan got the tablet communication device after a brief phase with a communication app, casting aside his often fruitless attempts at vocalization, reliance on behaviors, and use of picture symbol cards and sign language for self-expression.  His communication book, a huge binder filled with vocabulary for everyday interactions that he carried everywhere, grew old and cumbersome.

“Using my voice was the worst,” Juan told us during interviews done by emailing through the T10.  “Nobody ever understood me.” Along with mechanical difficulties that CP causes with production of intelligible speech, Juan experiences anxiety around communicating as many people with autism do. Another issue is his aphasia, a complex disorder more often associated with individuals recovering from stroke or traumatic brain injury. It affects parts of the brain that control expressive and receptive language.

“My brain doesn’t think in words,” Juan said. That may seem an unusual statement coming from a writer, but aphasia can make it hard to remember words even when you understand all that is happening around you and know what you want to say. Some people with aphasia are left completely unable to speak, read or write.

Juan works around his speech and language impairment using tools and resources included with the T10, which he operates through a switch-scanning method that gives him access to a large selection of symbol-based vocabulary at once. He can compose messages just by pressing a switch, conserving the amount of physical energy required for communication. When the switch is not with him or fatigue sets in, Juan prefers to use Tobii Dynavox Compass software on his iPad. Either way, he likes that he can express so much so easily.

“A lot of people just think of AAC to communicate, but there is so much more,” he said. “It has schedules and timers and videos and checklists and so many other tools and behavior supports that many of us need.”

Juan grew up with both English and Spanish, but found it challenging to learn the languages because of his disabilities. The T10 plays a part in putting that barrier behind him. “I can use it to help understand a word I may read or that somebody says by typing it and looking at the symbol” for the word, he said, adding that he is always finding something new under the umbrella of practical supports the technology offers.

“These really help me be more independent by keeping me on track and helping make choices and breaking things down into easy steps.” Juan said. He also likes the step-by-step videos and practice conversations included with the device, as well as its email and texting capabilities, calendar and calculator.

Though he experienced periods of homelessness all his life, Juan never gave up. He has moved consistently in a positive direction as an adult, with supportive people and resources there to light the way. Juan got involved with a housing program and is now transitioning to his own apartment with help from a part-time caregiver and, of course, Allie. Living independently is perhaps more appealing than ever now that he can speak with those he meets.

Communication was more frustrating than functional for Juan when he first consulted with speech-language pathologist Claire Francin, M.S., CCC-SLP at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago on possible solutions.  She fondly recalled Juan’s good nature and open-mindedness.

“He’s pretty incredible,” she said. “I think he just wanted to figure out what would be the best fit for him.” The app Juan tried fell short when it came to communicating with partners without literacy, she said. Ideas for consolidating his communication book to make it more portable did not pan out. While the T10 doesn’t erase every annoyance—Juan still gets flustered when others expect him to type faster, for instance—it brings empowering change to his life.

“You could tell that he was excited to be able to step out of his routine, and maybe a little bit out of his comfort zone because he has the confidence to be able to communicate,” Ms. Francin said.

Juan likes that the device’s Tobii Dynavox Compass language software is flexible and reliable. He used its topic-based Master pageset as a foundation for linking to specific language content. Juan is changing things up a bit and using Tobii Dynavox Core First, a pageset allowing the systematic addition of new language content color-coded by parts of speech without changing the location of older content. Selecting vocabulary without his switch may also be easier, because the targets are bigger. Juan is keeping the Master pages on his iPad and Core First on the T10 so he can have the best of both while making the transition.

Lately Juan is focusing on ordinary communication opportunities—while shopping, meeting neighbors or carrying out other day-to-day activities—to increase his fluency with the technology. Patience is all he asks from others.

“Some people think that because I’m typing (something), it’s OK to read it if I’m taking too long or they don’t understand,” he said. “But I don’t get to read little bubbles over your head like a comic book telling me what you say. If I have to learn to understand you, you can work on understanding me.” Even Allie seems to get that Juan’s device use really matters.  “She knows when I say ‘good girl’ it’s to her,” he said.

Juan takes the conversation back to his favorite topic—his daughter—when asked what he is looking forward to most as better communication expands the circle of his life.

“To watching my baby girl grow up,” he says. “I can’t wait to see what kind of difference she makes in the world.”

CM7C2903By Patrick Brune, M.S., CCC-SLP and Marleah Herman-Umpleby, M.S., CCC-SLP

Sometimes children with autism and other developmental conditions experience behavior issues that interfere with their augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device use. We’re pleased to present this series of three articles exploring common behavior challenges and ways to work through them toward successful communication. Here is the last article in the series.


Challenge 3: My student is just using this device to play or as a toy.

Why?   Have you ever heard someone say that an AAC device is not appropriate for someone because they will just “play” with the device or “use it as a toy?” Perhaps you’ve heard this after someone gets an AAC device.  Families and therapists say they sometimes worry that a device is not being used properly or effectively because the individual plays around with the buttons. Maybe you’ve felt this way, too.  Experience and observation tell us that typically speaking students like to play with language. They may try funny combinations of words and speech to laugh or make others laugh. This can be fun.

Sometimes, however, it is not appropriate behavior for a specific setting or situation. When you first saw an AAC device or keyboard, what did you do with it? You probably spelled out your name.  Most people do. This is a way of exploring or playing with the device. You probably did not hold back for a moment because you wanted to convey a very specific message. The same is true for students who must use AAC devices each day. Often they just need time to find out what the technology offers.  It’s not fair to expect them to resist temptation to explore the device when they first turn it on. The problem enters when prolonged exploration, or play, prevents the student from learning to use the device to communicate.

What you can do. Practices that can help establish boundaries between “playing” with the device and using it for self-expression include:

  • Designated time for exploration and play. The device, though not a toy, is something new to your student. It’s important to acknowledge their desire to check it out—and let them. Some classroom teachers have success with building time for device exploration into their students’ schedules.   It can vary with the day. A small interval of time may be available before morning circle time on some days or after classwork is done on others.
  • Partner-Augmented Input (PAI). This simple strategy involves using the device yourself, pointing to its content and pairing that with speaking in your own voice, during a typical classroom communication interaction.  Your student, in essence, will learn to use their device by watching you.  It might feel a little awkward at first, but as you get to know the device content, you’ll find that you can easily work it into what you are saying.

PAI is a highly effective way to model device use without pressuring your student for an immediate response. It also shows successful communication in situations the student can easily relate to.

Click on these links to watch a video or download a handout with PAI tips.

  • Natural consequences. It is entirely appropriate for a child who uses an AAC device to experience the natural consequences of goofing around in class when it’s not appropriate to do so. Imagine any child calling out silly words or rhymes or words during a teacher-directed classroom activity. The teacher would likely redirect this behavior by telling the student to stop and perhaps asking the student to leave the area where the activity is taking place. Natural consequences are peer inclusive and expected at those times.
  • Shaping and expanding. As your student learns to use their AAC device, a helpful teaching strategy is shaping their messages (i.e. vocabulary selections) as if for a real conversation.

For example, if the student says “green elephant” and laughs, you might laugh along and offer a new way to talk about elephants, like this (student’s messages in parentheses):

“I never saw a (green) (elephant)! I did see the (baby) (elephant) at the zoo.  Have (you) been to the (zoo)? My favorite animal was the (giraffe).   I know you have some pictures in your photo pages from the class trip to the zoo.  Let’s take a look there!”

Note that we did not ignore the “incorrect” statement about green elephants in the example, honoring the student’s use of language. Our aim as educators is not to reinforce errors in language production but to shape them into appropriate productions. While research suggests such trial and error approaches to learning may reinforce incorrect productions in some children, especially those with autism, it can also be motivating for the student to build conversations through this type of exploration.

Getting a child to use their AAC device more functionally means giving them chances to explore and utilize their language skills within practical and functional routines.   It helps to teach skills within frequently occurring contexts. Encourage your student to use their AAC device across the day, providing time for exploration, partner-augmented input, and shaping and expanding their expressive language use.  We think you’ll find this approach exciting and ultimately beneficial for your student.


Hey everyone!

As you probably know, April is Autism Awareness month. Check out and download this article – it is packed with  ideas to share with your team to encourage and support social skills development using tools within the Tobii Dynavox Compass software.

mrpotatohead jokes

You also may want to take a peek at the new information on our website: Autism Spectrum Disorder(ASD) – Supporting Communication


By Patrick Brune, M.S., CCC-SLP and Marleah Herman-Umpleby, M.S., CCC-SLP


Sometimes children with autism and other developmental conditions experience behavior issues that interfere with their augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device use. We’re pleased to present this series of three articles exploring common behavior challenges and ways to work through them toward successful communication. Here is the second article in the series.


Challenge 2: I can’t give my student a high-tech AAC device; he/she will just throw it.

Why? Behavior that includes throwing objects is often a way of telling us something. It’s our job to figure out what the student is trying to communicate.   We may not know exactly why they throw their AAC device, but most likely it’s because they are frustrated about something.

Could the “something” be that we are asking too much of them too soon? Or that they can’t find the right words or phrases to use to tell us something important? Then maybe we need to rethink how we are teaching them to use the AAC device

Once you determine possible reasons your student throws the device, you can provide a replacement strategy for that behavior.  Such strategies offer alternatives to negative behavior as well as ways to prevent it from happening in the first place.

What you can do:   Put on your detective hat. Take time to observe your student throughout the school day. What you’re looking for is really as simple as ABC:

  1. The A Consider what happens right before an incident. This occurrence is called the antecedent. Perhaps someone placed a demand on your student to use their AAC device. Maybe you saw that the student wanted to say something and attempted to find the needed words or phrases on the device without success.
  2. The B Notice what happens immediately following the behavior. What did you do when the student threw the device? Did they get attention for that action? What did the other students do?
  3. The C What consequences will there be for the student after throwing the device? This doesn’t necessarily mean punishment. A consequence could be a sensory break or simply putting the device back on the student’s desk, helping them find desired vocabulary and resuming the task at hand.

What if your student continues to throw the device?  Then you’ll want to change the antecedent.   This may happen gradually and requires awareness of your student. If, for instance, they’re looking intently at their device, maybe they are trying to find the phrase “I need a break” phrase.  Instead of asking, “What do you need?”, sit next to them and acknowledge that they have something to say. Use their device to show them where the desired phrase is and help them find it. Let them make their request using the device without pressure or demands. This replacement strategy is a hands-on way of teaching your student to use their device instead of engaging in a challenging behavior.

It’s possible your student is throwing the AAC device for a different reason altogether, so hold on to your detective hat. One tool that may give insight into why your student acts a certain way is a functional motivational assessment. This relatively quick and easy method of observation and data collection   lets you track situations where your student may be inclined to throw the device, allowing you to more proactively address behavior issues.

Whatever the outcome, know that Tobii Dynavox is proactive in supporting your efforts. Our devices are built to withstand extra tough situations.  Should an incident affect a device’s operation, we will work with you step by step. CLICK HERE for details.

While there is no guarantee that the throwing  will cease, tucking the device, ” safely” into a bag set out of the way  may be your worst recourse. With time and practice, your student’s communication abilities will likely improve, reducing the frustration that leads to challenging behaviors. Keeping that in mind may be your best bet.


By Patrick Brune, M.S., CCC-SLP and Marleah Herman-Umpleby, M.S., CCC-SLP


Sometimes children with autism and other developmental conditions experience behavior issues that interfere with their augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device use. We’re pleased to present this series of three articles exploring common behavior challenges and ways to work through them toward successful communication. Here is the first article in the series.


Challenge 1:  My student is not interested in using their augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device.

Why? This can happen for are several reasons. Let’s look closely at three common ones.


First, consider the emotions your student might have around using the device.  Research shows that individuals with similar attitudes can more easily create friendships with peers when everyone feels the same.  Conversely, it is difficult for a person to be accepted into a group when they’re seen as different than their peers. Students who use AAC and typical peers may engage in more successful peer interactions and social acceptance when they all feel a sense of uniformity. (Beck et. al, 2002).   In other words, sometimes kids just want to fit in.  Using an AAC device can set them apart.  Often it is hard to get a student to accept their AAC device or use it outside the therapy room.  Motivating them to use the device when interacting with peers who do not need one can, at times, seem impossible.


What can you do?  Ask to join the AAC evaluation team if you’re not on it already. You can inform and influence other team members on issues pertinent to your student’s device use. It is wise to support the recommendation of an AAC device that looks and acts like the technology other kids are using. A device that mirrors other technology used in the classroom is also a good fit.  Think about it. The more it blends in, the less “different” or “special” it will appear, fostering a more inclusive atmosphere. You contribute to that atmosphere as you encourage your student to use the device thoroughly throughout the school day.


Keep in mind that AAC devices once seldom resembled popular technologies. That has changed dramatically over time. Today’s devices are smaller, lighter and sleeker than before Very often they have the same hardware found in personal tablet computers.


The Tobii Dynavox T10 and Tobii Dynavox Compass software are leading this trend. A dedicated communication device sporting a familiar tablet design, the T10 offers the durability and robust language elements your students need. Its Compass software is also available as a subscription app for commonly used tablets.


At Tobii Dynavox, we understand that attitudes shape interactions between augmented communicators and their typical peers and successful interactions happen when students feel positive toward each other. A child’s use of progressive AAC technologies can be a catalyst for such interactions and ultimately for good social relationships.



Another reason your student may not want to use the AAC device is because its language content doesn’t suit their needs. Every student you meet has words and phrases uniquely important to them. Easy access to this preferred vocabulary is a top priority for students with AAC devices. Such vocabulary includes:

  • Names of important people and places
  • Words and phrases supporting frequent activities (getting ready for school, social events, recreational activities, games, etc.)


  • Language for everyday classroom communication including vocabulary that supports the curriculum and class participation. Phrases the student can use to ask for help, request breaks and answer questions on their own make school life easier.


What can you do? You don’t have to be a programming wiz to make personalization of device content a priority.  One of your best assets is awareness not just of the day-to-day vocabulary your student requires, but of how others in their age group like to say things. Your student likely will be very motivated to use a device offering that kind of language.

A good tool for device personalization is an AAC Needs Assessment, a simple checklist detailing the student’s AAC use including their preferred communication modes; their (and their partners’) communication skills; favorite or frequent conversation topics and communication environment/situations. The assessment can be completed during the initial AAC evaluation or on an ongoing basis after the device recommendation.

AAC companies regularly offer practical advice on device personalization. Members of the online community can join group discussions 24/7 with the Tobii Dynavox technical support team, clinical implementation specialists and most important, their AAC team members and peers who use AAC devices.  At, you’ll also find a comprehensive collection of resources, tips and research-based practices handy for those with aT10 and/or Compass software.


A third key reason for your student’s lack of interest is twofold: They may be embarrassed to use their AAC device in front of classmates and frustrated because they’re required to do something that no one else has to. A resulting sense of isolation may cause your student to want to abandon the device.

What can you do?   In such cases, it’s critical to get the whole team on board to help. The team can include anyone the student sees on a regular basis—parents, teachers, therapists and the school principal. Together, you can develop a strategy for motivating your student to use the AAC device each day.

Current AAC technologies truly are shared solutions, easily aligned with a universal classroom design that can motivate your student’s device use. Other students can simultaneously learn and benefit from AAC technology in unprecedented ways, often at no cost. The value in terms of raising awareness of learning differences and similarities is incomparable.


A student can learn to use their device to participate more fully in classroom instruction and social exchanges by watching someone else do the same, a practice known as modeling. You can use a technique called partner-augmented input (PAI) combining your use of the technology and speech to encourage the student to use their device as communication opportunities occur. Modeling and PAI can optimize teachable moments while easing any pressure to perform.



This is where tools such as the Tobii Dynavox Compass companion app and free editing software can come in.    Students with a Tobii Dynavox T10 have access to the companion app, which can be downloaded to an IOS- or Android-based personal computer. The Tobii Dynavox Compass editing software (without speech capabilities) can be downloaded to a personal computer.


Remember, relationships make AAC device use successful. Classroom teachers and school speech-language pathologists (SLPs) can facilitate a student’s AAC device use through informal peer training during which the SLP models device use for the student and classmates in a game or social activity. Classmates do not need to prompt or model for the student—they just join in the fun with the same technology at their fingertips. The result? A real-life lesson in breaking communication barriers!








Gio&SLP-Amy4Gio Coletta thrives in all he does, especially when people are around. You’ll often catch the extroverted six-year-old from Harbor Creek, PA waving to others and shaking their hands, even at the college bookstore where his parents work.

“He loves attention,” said his mom Haley. “He likes to be in the mix.” At the same time, Gio is an attentive listener who fully absorbs just about everything he hears. Primarily non-verbal because of his autism, Gio sometimes becomes frustrated that he can’t reciprocate in conversation. But lately, that’s been changing in a way that makes Gio and those around him very happy.

Now, when Gio wants to say something, all he has to do is bring up the Tobii Dynavox Compass software he keeps on an iPad that he uses just for communication. “It works out wonderfully,” his mom said. Gio uses a separate family iPad to read books, play games and for educational apps. He started using Compass a few months ago and takes it with him everywhere. Others finally have the pleasure of getting to know him better than before.

It means the world to Gio’s mother to know exactly what her son needs and how he feels. “Now he can communicate more functionally and more expressively. The functionality is the biggest difference,” Mrs. Coletta said, recalling that Gio could only go so far using picture symbol cards, signing approximations or a smattering of verbal approximations to convey his thoughts. Compass, meanwhile, is a resource for his overall language development, offering visual and behavioral supports. Gio likes the audio reinforcement the software provides in the form of a young boy’s voice.

“Compass is motivating and meaningful for him,” his mom said. Through his use of the software, Gio is becoming more independent in asking for help and learning the importance of making polite “I…” statements when interacting with others.

One of Gio’s closest companions on the journey is his older brother Max, 9, who was diagnosed with autism when Mrs. Coletta was eight months pregnant with Gio. The brothers have varying degrees of Fragile X syndrome, a genetic condition presenting cognitive challenges and commonly linked to autism in boys. Similarities between Gio and Max fade where their personalities come in. “They’re pretty different in how they get through the day,” Mrs. Coletta said. “What works for one doesn’t always work for the other.” Max, for example, is non-verbal and for now, doing well with low-tech symbols and unaided communication strategies (like pointing) as his language develops. He is perfectly content to be alone while Gio is more outgoing, spontaneous and easily excitable. Their mom appreciates Max’s calming influence on Gio and, especially, the quality time the boys spend together. “We choose to celebrate them every day,” she said. “I want them to be as happy and successful as they can be.”

In the morning, the boys ride the bus to the Elizabeth Lee Black School at the National Barber Institute in Erie, PA, and look for each other as the day goes on though they’re in different classrooms. At home, the learning continues.

“I’ve seen Max teach Gio and Gio teach Max,” Mrs. Coletta said. “Sometimes it’s very direct, sometimes it’s very indirect.” She likes that Max tends to go with the flow, setting a good example for Gio, who is often restless. With equal pride and joy, she tells of when Gio, through simple actions, taught Max how to work their CD player. The boys love music and dancing. Bike riding, playground visits and swimming occupy much of their free time. So does Gio’s favorite activity—gymnastics. The boys take gymnastics classes designed for kids on the spectrum. Gio is always asking when the next class is, turning to Compass to help him pose the question.

Barber Institute speech-language pathologist Amy Moczulski, M.A. CCC-SLP recommended Compass because Gio needed a primary functional communication system. She soon found that it also motivated Gio to engage with his peers and initiate interaction more often. “I had never heard him say what he liked before.”

Gio uses Compass to express himself as situations call for, whether telling classmates it’s their turn while playing a game or perhaps fishing for a compliment—as when he showed off his new shoes. Every time this happens is another chance for Gio’s communication partners to get to know him.

“He really has a desire to share experiences,” Mrs. Moczulski said.

 By Patti Murphy

Like most 16-year-olds, Kreed is an independent thinker. He enjoys having choices, and the freedom to express his likes and dislikes, whether the subject is food, entertainment, or how he wants to spend the weekend. Until recently, however, he could not communicate those things easily. Primarily non-verbal because of his autism, Kreed has a history of challenging behaviors, including self-injury, grounded in his inability to speak. Behavior and communication were practically equivalent for Kreed while growing up. He often used aggression—making loud utterances, kicking, spitting, or refusing to move—to express thoughts and feelings.

The situation is improving dramatically now that Kreed uses the Tobii Dynavox T10. As the tablet augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) system makes it easier for him to communicate, Kreed’s distinctive voice is taking shape. His language abilities are beginning to flourish as he learns that communication is about talking and listening. He is growing as a person.

We all know an individual with autism who has a special interest, fascination, or “enthusiasm.”  I know a 6-year-old who loves all things dinosaur, a 5-year-old who likes strings, and an 8-year-old who is into lights.  Speaking youngsters with Autism often talk about their special interest topic, and savvy communication partners can use this interest as a way to engage and expand communication.

Individuals with Autism who use augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) often have a special interest area as well.  Why not use their interest area as a way to engage and expand communication through their AAC system?  We can do this in several ways:

Categories (My Words, Vocab Lists):  Be sure that in addition to the usual word categories present in the AAC system (animals, foods, body parts, places) that there is a category for the special interest (dinosaurs, lights, strings).  Within the category you can have word lists that allow the AAC user to label, request, and comment about members of the category, be it dinosaurs, lights, or whatever.

Pictures (My Photos, Picture Albums):  We use photos of people, events and places in AAC systems to allow the AAC user to recall and tell about important things.  Photographs of special interest items can also be included in photo album pages.  Each photo is paired with appropriate words, phrases and sentences to allow the AAC user to tell about his interest in detail.    Pictures of the AAC user playing with or arranging his items can be accompanied by messages that describe the items, tell about the event pictured, and even invite the communication partner to engage further.

Scripts:  Some AAC users benefit from the structure of a pre-planned script on their AAC system that includes several things to say about a particular topic.  A special interest is a perfect script topic, and the AAC user can use the script to engage with peers enthusiastically and successfully.  The script might be pre-programmed messages to activate and speak on the AAC device, or it might be picture-supported messages on a paper communication board that the user can point to.  The script would include an introduction, several message turns, and a closing.  The AAC user’s part of the script might be something like this:

  • Did you know that I love dinosaurs?
  • My favorite is the Triceratops.
  • Triceratops was a plant-eater.
  • We can’t see them anymore because they are extinct.
  • Do you like dinosaurs?
  • Maybe we can play with my dinosaur toys someday.
  • See you later.

We all prefer to talk about things that we care about.  Keeping in mind that this is true for our AAC users also can help us be better communication partners.

I was in a workshop recently when I heard someone say, “He can’t learn to use his AAC device for anything but requesting because he has autism.”

Could that be true?

I don’t think so.

I think we often introduce AAC equipment and strategies in activities that involve requesting.  Why?  Because it is motivating and often instantly successful.   Because it works!  We then often expand opportunities for requesting to additional activities throughout the day, so the AAC user can request snack foods, center time activities, music, break time, and even which classmate to sit with.   Many opportunities, but only opportunities for requesting.  Is that all there is?

We know that the ability to use AAC to request may not automatically transfer to other functions of language without teaching.  That is what the research suggests.  So what that means for us is that we need to introduce AAC use for other functions of language and then use our communication partner strategies to teach it!

How do we do it?

We can model and teach AAC use for commenting, protesting, and sharing information in virtually any setting.

I can show commenting at its most simple by saying and touching the AAC device to indicate “this is good” or “this stinks,” while we are having a snack.   “This is funny,” while reading a book or “This makes me mad,” when having difficulty with something.

I can show protesting by modeling the use of the AAC device to say, “I don’t want to,” or “No” after presenting items or activities that I know the AAC user does not like.  “Stop it,” when a classmate is being a bother.  I can use sabotage to create situations that lend themselves to protest and then assist the AAC user to do so with his or her device.

I can teach information sharing by using photographs of the AAC user engaged in fun activities or with his or her family members, and messages that tell about the people and events depicted.  “This is my dog.”  “This is me at Christmas with my presents.”  “Look at me on a bike!”

Have a look at the AAC users that you support.  Are they using their AAC device for a variety of language purposes?