Dos and Don'ts for speaking with AAC users
When we talk about augmentative communication we often focus on an AAC user and how they can express themselves. But communication is a two way street. While it's important for an AAC communicator to be able to speak, it is also important for the rest of us to engage in a way that supports expression and does not discredit the AAC user or their words.
To find out more about speaking to AAC users from people who actually rely on AAC, we reached out to Chloe Rothschild and Lydia Wayman.
These women are well-educated, well-spoken, well-written AAC advocates who also happen to use AAC for communication on a part-time basis due to their own communication needs. Their insights come from years of personal experience and stories they've heard from other AAC users.
What are some things you should do (or not do) when talking to an AAC communicator.
- DO Focus on the message and not the communication method:
Whether a person speaks verbally, by sign language, in picutres, or by high-tech AAC what they have to say matters. We don't discount someone because they speak French or Arabic -- and AAC is no different. If you think of a message shared via AAC as lesser or simple, stop it! As Chloe reminded us, "Be respectful of their voice."
- Do Be patient:
Speaking using AAC is more time consuming than speaking with a physical voice. While verbal speech can often move as quickly as 100-130 words per minute, with AAC you are doing well if you compose 30 words per minute. But the speed of communication does not correlate to the importance of the message. We MUST be patient and give people the time they need to share their thoughts. A few extra seconds may feel a little bit awkward, but its worth it to allow a person to be heard.
- Do wait for an answer before moving on:
If you bombard an AAC user with a borrage of questions it is difficult for them to catch up (remember the part about not being able to string words together as quickly). When speaking to an AAC communicator DO ask questions, but when you can see they are working to answer allow them to get their words out before you move on to the next question. And it's not just questions! When speaking about a topic if you can see the AAC user has something to say, pause the conversation to give them time to share before jumping to the next subject. Even in a group, a voiced, "Hold on, I can see Emily has something to say about that," can give a person the chance to be part of the discussion instead of leaving them out.
- Don't be surprised if the ability to communicate varries from day to day
One afternoon an AAC user may be able to fluidly express words and ideas while another afternoon little is said beyond yes or no. Lydia Wayman suggests reasons for that are varried but may include: issues relating to the time of day (being tired, feeling sick, strong emotions, broken routine), environmental concerns (sensory overload, crowds, focusing on several things at once), physical location (new or unfamiliar place, previous bad experience, indoors/outdoors), the communication partner (do they know my usual references, do I feel pressured, is it an authority figure).
- Don't speak for them
It's not always easy to compose our thoughts -- that's true for everyone. But because it can also take an AAC user extra time to speak what is on their mind sometimes communication partners step in to finish a sentence or say what the person thinks or feels. That isn't right. No one can say for sure what another person is going to say or what is really on their mind. When talking to an AAC user don't talk over the top of them, don't finish their sentence, don't put words in their mouth.
- Don't make them prove anything in order to communicate
Everyone deserves the opportunity to express themselves. No one should have to answer questions or show their skill before they have the right to speak for themselves. "Don't make the AAC user feel like they have to prove their abilities," Lydia said. "If communication is a right then no tests, scores, or eligibility criteria should limit access to AAC."
- Don't assume they don't understand
Just because an AAC user does not respond does not necessarily mean they don't understand what you said. They may be thinking about something else, taking in their surroundings, uninterested in the topic, or just need some quiet time. If you want to know if they understood you, then ask them. You might be surprised what they say if you honor their communication.
For more information about communication rights see the
"Communication Bill of Rights"
from the National Joint Committee for the Communication Needs of Persons with Disabilities.
Chloe Rothschild: Chloe is a young adult who has PDD-NOS. Chloe is verbal, but uses AAC to supplement verbal language. It has enriched her life. She enjoys using her talent and love for writing to raise awareness about autism. Chloe is on the PSA for the Autism Society and on OCALI's advisory board. In addition, she writes blogs and operates a public Facebook page, where she shares her story. Finally, she has spoken to various groups of people and at conferences about autism from her perspective.
Lydia Wayman: Lydia is an autistic advocate, artist, and writer/editor with a B.S. in education and an M.A. in English and nonfiction writing. She has presented at events for students, parents, and youth with disabilities as well as national autism conferences. She has also written about autism in magazines, books, and online publications. Lydia enjoys being creative and mentoring younger autistic friends and supporting families by helping them understand how their kids see the world.