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.