Did your child recently get an AAC system and you need help getting started? Have they had one for months or even years, but you're still feeling lost as to how to get your child to actually use it? Maybe you hear reports from school or therapists that they use it successfully to communicate there, but you're not seeing any progress at home!
Starting with AAC can be very overwhelming, but it's important to make simple, realistic, and attainable goals to make both you and your child feel successful!
AAC is similar to learning a new language. It's a visual language system, and learning how to use it is just like when you learned Spanish or French in school! I'm sure we've all heard that the best way to become fluent in new language is to travel abroad and be fully immersed in the language. We have to be exposed to the language and have opportunities to use it!
When starting with AAC, parents, caregivers, teachers, and therapists are the ones responsible for showing this new language to the child. We have to show them how this language applies to their everyday routines and how it can help them communicate more effectively. This means that, at home, parents and caregivers play a very important role in the learning of AAC. We must first speak AAC to the child in order for them to learn it. Imagine if your Spanish teacher spoke to you in English all class, but expected you to respond in Spanish! That would be very challenging, especially if you were a new learner.
The key to teaching AAC is called aided language modeling. Aided language modeling is the act of pairing what you say verbally with a button on the device. For example, if you say "time to eat!" before dinner time, you may also press "eat" on your child's device. If you say "Let's go outside!," you may press "go" on the device. With many different buttons, it may seem overwhelming to get started. Parents often say
"How am I supposed to find the buttons?"
"This takes too long!"
"I keep forgetting to have the device around!"
"I already know what my child wants, so I just do it without the device"
"My child doesn't even look when I model!"
"I know I'm supposed to model on the device, but I have too much going on!"
You may be feeling this same way! Or you may just now be hearing about the word aided language modeling. That's okay! We focus on progress over perfection. The key is breaking it down into small goals that you can actually accomplish! Here are 3 tips to help you get started one step at a time.
Remember that it takes 1 whole year for an infant to start using JUST ONE word!! Learning to communicate using AAC can be slow like all language development, but when we think about the future and persist and keep believing, the reward is well worth it! We have to celebrate the small successes and keep going!
Tip 1: Pick a routine that you do EVERY DAY and pick 1-2 words to model during that time
Routines could be bedtime, bath time, mealtime, getting ready for school, after school snack, reading stories, play time, watching favorite TV shows, playing outside, car rides, or cleaning...
Look at the home page of the device and pick one core word to model. Try to stay on the home page, because if you have to navigate too far, you may get frustrated or lose your child's attention.
Make sure when picking a routine at first, that it's something that's relatively calm and enjoyable for everyone. If getting ready for school is chaotic and stressful or your child does not enjoy this routine, it may not be the best place to start. Maybe, however, everyone is happy during after school snack and you, as the parent, feel like you have the energy to add something extra during that time. This would be a great first routine to model a word like "want" "more" "eat" or "all done"
Tip 2: Keep the device in the same room as the child is in and in a place they could reach for a week!
We need to have the device in our area and be used to having it around before we can start using it. If it's always in the backpack or on the kitchen counter, it's going to be hard to start trying modeling or exploring.
To break down this goal even more, try picking an area where you spend a lot of time with your child, maybe the living room or play room, and make sure it's always in that space.
Make sure that if the device is in the same room, that it's also in a spot the child can reach. If it's high up on a shelf, a small child won't be able to explore or try using it, and it will be less accessible for you to model.
Sometimes, parents are fearful that they will break the device, and they want to keep it in a safe place. It's important to be careful when using the device, of course, but the goal is that it is being used! It's also a lot more durable than you may think. As an SLP, I love when the device has dirty finger prints or marks on the case. It means that the child and family are truly using it! Make sure you have a durable case and a screen protector, but the goal is for the device to be a part of the child, so it should go wherever they go!
Tip 3: Pick ONE word and model that word as many times as you can in a week.
It can be overwhelming to set the expectation that you're going to model every word you say or every word on the home page. It can be challenging at first to even locate the buttons you want! That's okay, it's part of learning. Picking one word can help you learn the location and develop your own motor plan for the word. The repetition of the word in lots of different activities can help your child learn better too!
Focus on words that are on the front, home page. These are core words and they give us more power. Think about if we only modeled the child's favorite food "pizza." There wouldn't be nearly as many opportunities to model that. Instead, if we focus on a word like "eat" or "more" or "want," there are many activities throughout the day where those words may apply and more chances to model!
Pick one goal to start and try it out for a week. Then pick a new word, routine, or goal and try it again the next week.
To help you remember or keep track try...
writing your goal on a white board
Put a sticky note in the area you often do the routine or may use the word (bathroom, exterior door, fridge, toy box)
Set a reminder in your phone around the time you usually do a routine (meal time, morning routine, bedtime)
Ask your SLP for printed paper versions of the device home page to put around the house to use if the device isn't nearby or as a reminder
Share your goal with your partner, other children, other family members
Make it competitive... try to tally the number of times you use a word or model and see if you can beat it each week.
Still confused about modeling? Click the button below to check out our blog post with video examples of aided language modeling!