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.



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.