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.


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