Get-togethers and Speech Buttons: 7 tips for AAC at gatherings

Nov 14, 2018

The idea of bringing an AAC user that you love to a large gathering of people during the holidays or for another event can be overwhelming.

What if they need help? What if they can't find you? What if everyone avoids them. What if people are rude? What if people can't hear their device? What if it runs out of battery? What if people ignore the things they say?

There are a lot of things to think about.

With Thanksgiving and Christmas in the wings there are many upcoming opportunities for get-togethers and planning ahead can make things run more smoothly (and just might ease your worries a bit as well).

We'd like to share seven simple tips that might make gatherings a little bit easier for you and the AAC communicator in your life.

1. Don't Apologize

While it's easy to sometimes feel like having different needs makes your AAC communicator difficult for a group to handle, the reality is that these are people who care about your family and we all make concessions and adjustments to support people we love. It is not too much to ask people to have understanding and concern for the needs of someone they care for. You would gladly adjust the furniture for a person in a wheelchair, alter the menu for someone with an allergy, and it isn't too much to ask for people to tweak their ideas of communication in order to include and support someone who communicates using AAC.

2. Plan Ahead

Be sure that your communicator has easy access to words and phrases that will likely be needed during your gathering. Take a few minutes to add speech buttons with words or phrases specific to this activity to pair with your communicators regular core vocabulary words. You might add holiday words (like this Thanksgiving AAC speech board) or a quick conversation board to your CoughDrop sidebar for easy access. If your sweetheart will be spending time with cousins or other youth, it might be good to be sure they can tell a joke or use popular slang terms. You might look for a chance to let your AAC user say the family prayer or share a favorite thought or poem and work with him or her to compose a piece which they can access on their device to share with the group.

3. Normalize AAC for Your Group

Being part of a social group that invovles an AAC user is a great opportunity for people to learn more about AAC and the power of communication. Help those in your group better understand AAC by exposing them to this mode of speech and giving them the chance to explore it.

  • You could send out an email before your activity explaining a bit about AAC. You might share some information from ASHA or another group.
  • You might include a version of a basic AAC speech board so that people better understand how AAC works.
  • Maybe make a video of you or your AAC communicator speaking using the AAC system or share a clip like this FUN one.
  • Get down and dirty and make AAC themed placemats for dinner and then encourage your family and friends to supplement their conversation with words from the placemat.

4. Model AAC...for your friends & family

While it is SUPER important for your AAC communicator to see you model language, it is also SUPER important for your group to see you modeling with your AAC user. Your example helps them know how to interact because they are probably unsure of what to do or how to do it. It might help to print a speech board and post that in the home or venue to be available for others as they try to speak with your AAC communicator. Don't move to the side or go in another room to speak with your AAC user, let people see how it's done and encourage them to do the same. Model "you," "go," "please," or "no" to support the things another person is saying to your communicator and encourage them to give it a try.

5. Prep With a Social Story

It's good to think about how to help your friends and family better engage with AAC, but let's not forget to help our AAC user be ready for this gathering as well. One research-supported strategy to help that happen is using a social story or social narrative. A social story works much like modeling language, it lays out an example of how a function will go to help a person better understand what to expect. While it may take a bit of thought and preparation ahead of time, it can really relieve the anxiety and confusion that might arrise otherwise. Learn a bit about crafting a social story here.

6. Provide a 'tap out'

No matter how great your preparation and how awesome your friends and family, it is still very possible that a large gathering will be overwhelming for your communicator. Be sure that you provide them with a 'tap out' option before you head to the event. Plan a phrase they can say that alerts you to their need to get away. Scout out a quiet place or secluded area ahead of time where you can go for a few minutes to calm things down and talk through any concerns. You don't need to make this a large production but it also doesn't need to be a secret, "Chris and I need to take a break for a minute, we'll come back when we've had a chance to chill a bit." Most people understand the need for a breather even if they may not completely comprehend the gravity of that concern.

7. Don't Expect Perfection

Not matter how well you plan, things will not go perfectly. Someone will say the wrong thing. Your communicator may be unwilling to participate. The group may not include your AAC user as much as they should. A youngster might make fun of the speech board you created. A well-meaning relative might "inform" you about a better way to do things. You may run low on patience. Whatever the hitches, keep an eye out for the successes as well. Make note of the moment someone gets eye level to ask your communicator about school. Smile enouragingly when a person talks too loud, but tries to model words from a printed card. Honor your AAC users words even when they are spoken out of turn or out of context. Every success matters even amidst a sea of imperfect moments. Take a second as you leave or send a group email thanking everyone for the efforts they made and maybe point out a couple of the good things you saw to teach and encourage your group. They'll probably do even better the next time you get together.

Melissa DeMoux

Former CoughDrop Director of Marketing and Support -- worked with AAC communicators & teams