Saturday, August 30, 2014

Lesson Learned from AAC Camp

For the second year in a row I was blessed to be able to volunteer at Camp Communicate held by the

Pine Tree Society in Maine every year.  Camp Communicate is a three day family retreat welcoming AAC users ages 8-21 and their caregivers and siblings (and in some cases teachers and speech therapists).  AAC users and siblings participate in camp activities like arts and crafts, swimming, boating and outdoor games.  Parents and other adults participate in workshops about augmentative communication, self care and other issues related to AAC and family.  Special events for everyone include things like a visit from the ice cream truck, campfires, fireworks and a dance.  Just like last year it was an amazing, awe-inspiring long weekend.  Also just like last year I am fairly certain I learned as much, if not more, than any of the campers or caregivers.  Here the stories of some of the lessons I learned:
  • A mom who had been to the presentation I gave the previous year hugged me hello and told me that something I said had stuck with her and impacted her family's life.  I prepared myself for a compliment.  "Turn it on," she said, "you told us to turn it (her son's speech device) on."  Not quite what I was expecting to hear! Lesson learned - respecting families and their journeys means meeting them where they are and that means acknowledging that even turning on a speech device can be a big step. 
  • My wonderful friend and Drama Therapist in her final year of training, Lauren, and I hosted drama therapy sessions for each group.  I had deliberately given given Lauren very little detailed information on complex communication needs, though I had given her lots of information on how speech devices work and how presumption of competence is the key to our work in the field.  My theory was that because Lauren had not worked with this population before her expectations would be higher if she relied on on her drama therapy training and not what I could summarize.  In our sessions Lauren led two warm up activities.  I silently had my doubts about one of them because nearly twenty years in this field had me mind-washed to believe that child and teens with complex communication needs do not excel at pretend or imaginative play.  I was so wrong.  In every group, every single camper beautifully engaged with the activities and pretended and imagined, using their speech devices to describe and label their acting.  Lesson learned - the only limits to  imagination and pretend play that exist for complex communicators is that which we, the adults and professionals, put on them.

  • At the camp dance (there is nothing like dances that include a majority of people with multiple disabilities - more joy and less drama than any other dance on the planet) I made sure to spend time with each of the campers I knew well.  At one point I had been spending time with a young man I know very, very well - he was my student two years ago and has been at camp the past two summers.  He is an AAC user who has a Tobii eye gaze tracking system.  He also looks at things and people in his environment to communicate.  I noticed he was twisting around to look at the beautiful young woman that was his assigned one-to-one for the weekend.  After having her move where he could see her and talk to her I moved on to visiting with another camper.  A few minutes later his mom and sister called to me.  He had opened an new email and had written, "Dear Kate, I miss you" and was attempting to send it.  I laughed and called to him that I was right behind him.  Lesson learned - the right to communication encompasses not just AAC for face-to-face interactions but the ability to communicate using text message, e-mail and video chat.  (Something that Medicare is trying to end.  Please sign this petition and contact your congress person to keep access to ALL means of communication available to AAC users.)
  • In addition to the drama therapy games we played in our drama session, we also rehearsed for a special performance for the parents and caregivers and made music videos.  The special performance was a mash-up of  Shambala by Three Dog Night and This Little Light of Mine.  Each camper had to use their speech device to identify one thing he or she was good at and then we sang about it.  Hearing each camper share what he or she has a special talent for was enlightening for so many reasons.  Some campers focused on their special interests (wearing hats, football), others focused on what they know makes others happy (their smile) and still others focused on what they enjoy (cooking, flirting).  Not one said, "functional academics", "life skills", "zipping my coat", "not interrupting", "conversational turn taking" or any of the things we harp on in IEPs.  Lesson learned - every child gets to define what he or she is good at and what has meaning to him or her and we would do well to take our lead from them. 

  • Much like the weekend before when I was privileged to see Mary Louise Bertram speak on AAC and Angelman Syndrome a few people told me they thought I wouldn't learn much from the experience of volunteering at AAC camp.  And just like with that lecture they were wrong.  Lesson learned:  there is always more you can learn.
Camp Communicate in their end of camp performance "Letting Our Light Shine":

Each camper worked on this in drama therapy and then a dress rehearsal before this performance for their parents, caregivers and siblings.  Every student choose their own statement on how their light shines using his or her speech device.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sam IS Reading!

Sam is Learning to Read was a YouTube video made back in December 2013.  Samantha, a teenager with Rett Syndrome, is working on letters, phonics and blending.

And now, today, Sam IS reading!  She read three of these cards on her own and answered the question.  Here is one of the times:

So to make a long story short - children, teens and adults with multiple disabilities including complex communication needs (CCN) CAN learn to read.  Never doubt it!  Presume Competence!!!

Sunday, July 27, 2014


Reading and listening comprehension, spelling and vocabulary are key parts of the common core for all grade levels. For our students who communicate using alternative methods and do not yet write we still need to address these vital skills.  In fact, it may be more important that we teach these skills. Not to mention use the teaching of these skills as a vehicle to increase communication abilities.

Here is a collection of worksheets designed for AAC users who do not write.  The sheets have embedded data collection for alternative assessment. Additionally they focus on vital communication skills such as categorization, locating vocabulary, using synonyms and antonyms and giving opinions.

Please remember that using these sheets is not teaching, it is testing.  Testing should never replace teaching!  These sheets should be used after direct and differentiated instruction that gives students to skills to answer the questions.  Handing any of these sheets to a paraprofessional and expecting that to replace quality teaching is obviously something none of us would consider high quality instruction.

Feel free to adapt these for other picture symbol sets, communication systems and ages/abilities. If you send me your creations I will share them with all my readers!

Fiction Comprehension Check
Non-Fiction Comprehension Check

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

I Can Hear You

I can hear you.
It seems like you don't know that,
Do you?
I am sitting here,
In this chair.
Trying as hard as I can.
Or I was, at least.
Are you?
You ask me questions,
But you won't wait for me to answer.
You talk so fast.
And you don't check that I am ready.
When I'm quiet I'm good
When I'm noisy I'm bad
You boss me around,
Press this,
Touch that.
If I do or if I don't,
It doesn't matter.
You have already decided.
You have decided that I can't.
You have decided I can't hear you.
You have decided I can't understand.
But I can,
I can hear you,
I can understand.
Maybe I don't understand every word.
But I do understand your tone.
I understand that text message
Is more important than me.
I understand your data sheet
Is more valuable than me.
I can hear you.
When you talk about:
Your husband,
Your traffic jam,
Your student who is too low to get it.
I can hear you.
I know that student is me.
I know, and,
I can hear you.

Dedicated to C.D.  I am sorry friend for all the times people have doubted you.  I am especially sorry for the speech therapist who said, in front of you, after you told him he was bossy and asked to stop with your device, that he thinks you are low and cannot use your device.  I wish I could fix it.  Fix him.  Fix all the therapists and teachers who assume you can't hear them and don't understand.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Real Costs of Premium AAC Apps

Today Dynavox announced that some of the dynamic PODD communication program will be available for an additional $100 purchase on their T10 device and Dynavox Compass app.  The Compass app is by subscription only.  Which got me thinking, how much does it really cost to use some of these apps? Especially ones by companies that also make stand along devices (legacy companies)?

least expensive over five years $99.99
There is a lot of nickle and diming with some of the apps. You might pay extra for the voice or even more for a premium voice.  You might pay extra for the more research based vocabularies (Gateway, WordPower, iEssence).  You might pay extra for cloud storage to back up or share files. You might even have to pay extra for symbols!  Some app companies are straight forward and the price is all inclusive (Proloquo2Go, AACorn, Speak For Yourself, SonoFlex) and others find lots of little extras to charge you for (Go Talk Now, TouchChat, LAMP Words for Life) and others are using a cost prohibitive subscription model unless you by one of their $5000 traditional AAC devices then they waive the subscription (Dynavox).  This is not to say that there is anything inherently wrong with offering more of "pay-for-what-you-need" style app as long as companies are clear about what that in their app descriptions, advertisements and websites.

Those of us who have been around a while notice that the "old time" companies like Dynavox, PRC (LAMP Words for Life), Saltillo (TouchChat) and Attainment (Go Talk Now) seem to be the ones trying to find every possible way to charge us without coming out and saying it.  I understand they need to find a new business model that will allow them to stay afloat in a new post-iPad AAC world, but somehow I think this isn't the way to do it.  Quality, beautiful, easy-to-use, research based products will have us in the field spending money.  Add to that customer service, and not necessarily in the old way (call centers) but in new ways like through Facebook, Twitter, Skype and YouTube (and more) and setting up groups for customers to support each other.  That is what will make money.  Assuming AAC professionals and parents are stupid enough to fork over all sorts of money because your company is one of the oldest players on the field will not make money.  Some the legacy companies mistook customer dependence for loyalty in the past!

Also here is some free advice for AAC app companies:
1) schools and adult service agencies generally cannot make in app purchases because of how their purchase order system works
2) schools, adult service agencies and state rehabilitation and assistive technology agencies do not generally pay for subscriptions. They don't know their budget from year to year and they aren't able to pay for ongoing subscriptions for just a handful of clients
3) parents and agencies that do a fundraiser such as Gofundme are better off fundraising for one larger up front purchase than ceaseless fundraising to pay for subscriptions
3) people, schools and other agencies included are generally willing to pay for quality, complete solutions
most expensive over five year $1499.95

I did a little cost analysis.  This analysis assumes you will use a comprehensive vocabulary set, picture symbols for communication, a premium voice and some means of backing up your pages.

The five year cost for some of the apps are as follows (click link below to see chart):
Here is the link to the table:.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Apps for AACtion

Here is a list of apps I have been using to get kids talking with their Augmentative and Alternative AAC apps:

SpeakaZoo is a free app where the child is a zoo keeper who goes from animal to animal having
conversations.  The characters are fun even for older kids and after the animal talks to you there is unlimited time to formulate an answer, hold down the microphone key and reply.  A great way to work on conversational turn taking, problem solving, answering questions and even some social skills.

Don't Let the Pigeon Run this App is a $4.99 app which is a take off of the Mo Willems book series.  What is great about this app for AAC users is that you record your "voice" as part of writing the story and then you hear it read back.

Draw and Tell is a $1.99 drawing and painting app by Duck Duck Moose that adds a whole new aspect -
recording a message to go with your drawing.  Perhaps more fun is your student adding stickers and drawing on photographs (or your student directing you to add stickers and drawings to photos) and then recording a message to go with the embellished photo.

Tell About This come in a free and paid version for $2.99 which is well worth the money.  The app simply shows a photograph and asks a question about it.  The question is read aloud with highlighting.  Your student records an answer which can be saved and shared.  Even cooler you can add your own photos with your own prompts.  So fun to take pictures of common routines or unique evens and ask students to create messages on their devices to tell about them.

Sparklefish is a MadLibs style app that uses an audio recording of the words you chose instead of just typing
them in.  Your recorded word is then inserted into the story.  Great for working on parts of speech or working in groups.

Chatterpix Kids, Chatterpix and Facetalk are all free apps with add an animated mouth which speaks your student's recorded audio to photographs.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

AAC in the Water

You've been working on AAC all school year.  Motivating, modeling and moving out of the way while your students blossom with communication.  Now it is summer.  Your students will be in swimming pools, lakes, sprinklers or even hot tubs.  What to do?  Here are some ideas on how to make communication continue to happen in the water!

    Yes and No Temporary Tattoos
  • Temporary Tattoos can be made at home using special paper or custom orders can be created by companies like Stray Tats. You can have a strip of symbols "tattooed" on your students arm or leg, have yes and no on your own hands or come up with a solution that is perfect for you.  If you are really committed go for the real thing! (and send me pics!)
  • Print boards on waterproof paper and use them in the water. Waterproof paper can be purchased at Staples or other stores or online from Amazon or specialty companies
    Kickboard by Tots-n-Tech
  • Laminating, especially using a heat seal laminating machine and thicker laminating plastic is another great way to waterproof low tech communication boards.  Remember to cut before you laminate (and then cut again WITHOUT cutting the paper underneath) to keep your board waterproof.  After you laminate you have lots of choices:

    AAC on a Shirt
  • Print communication symbols, boards or spelling boards on tee shirts, bandannas or fabric to use in the water.  You can also buy shirts or bandannas.  Communication partners can wear a tee shirt or tank top or carry a cloth to be used in or around water. 
Do you have a creative solution?  Please send pictures!

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