Sunday, October 26, 2014

Use It to Connect

So often we see augmentative and alternative communication systems, systems which are capable of robust and generative communication being turned into a test (or as I like to call it a "test mess") or a worksheet.  Turning it into these things actually takes some effort, which is perplexing because why would you work so hard to turn it into something it was never meant to be when most speech devices and premium communication apps function beautifully as a voice "out of the box"?

Of course I know why this happens.  It happens because well meaning people - usually speech therapists and special education teachers but sometimes parents or other professionals - feel that the child needs to prove that they are learning and prove that they are capable.  We put that on ourselves because we know we must take data and we think it will be easier to get that data if we use very contrived, test-like situations. 

Instead of being able to comment or ask a question hundreds upon hundreds of AAC users can only say "circle" or "square" or some similar assessment drive message on their device. Besides missing the point that an AAC system if for communication - meaning it is for social closeness and connection, as well as for social pragmatics, sharing information and stating wants and needs - using an AAC system as a test, worksheet or find it toy can send the message that the system is work and to be avoided.  One little girl told me today when I asked her how she felt about her system (after switching her from her "test mess" to a robust vocabulary) that it was "bad" and "yucky".  It is sad that someone who probably meant well, really well, accidentally made her think the device she is supposed to use as a voice is bad and yucky.

If we aren't testing by making "Test Mess" pages then we seem to be testing by telling students where to go on their systems and what to say.  Which measures lots of things like auditory comprehension, following directions and symbol or button identification but doesn't actually measure communication.  

We are the people who get to set the tone for how an AAC user will feel about his or her system.  We have the awesome privileged of getting to create a love for words and connection!  Not a day goes by that I don't marvel at what a gift that is. The power we have to to give our learners the amazing blessing that is communication. 

Tips to avoid a "test mess":
  • remember all students deserve a robust and generative communication system that meets his or her specific needs in relations to vision, hearing, motor skills and other issues
  • remind yourself that ALL language learners have access to hundreds of words for years before they string them into clear sentences 
  • do academic tasks "off system" by using low technology interventions - instead use the AAC system to TALK about the school work
  • think carefully if you should do symbol training and/or visual discrimination with AAC users and if you must then do it "off system"
  • clearly delineate academic versus communication goals, "will answer 3/5 comprehension questions" is an academic goal, "will make 2-3 relevant comments and ask 1-2 questions about a story read aloud" is a communication goal.
  • work hard at teaching, not programming - if you have to program for hours you might be headed in the wrong direction, nearly all robust and generative AAC systems should need only tweaking, not advanced programming and definitely not a "start from scratch" approach
  • consider the wise words of Dr. Caroline Musselwhite, "Be a Detective and Not a Director" or as one of my students would tell you, "Don't be bossy!" If you are telling a student where to navigate or what to say on his or her system you are being a director (and bossy).  Instead of being directive be conversational and use visual, gestural and indirect verbal prompts to guide if you must and then model (if need be) how to get to a relevant page.
  • to put it another way, do as Joan Jett and Lesley Gore before her said, "Don't tell me what to do and don't tell me what to say!"

(AB you were right, it did turn into a blog post!  So many conversations seem to head that way!)

Friday, October 24, 2014


iCardSort is a ten dollar iPad app designed for, well, sorting cards. Basically it allows you to create cards and arrange them on a background.  Sticky Notes is Simple, right?  But imagine all the things you can use it for.

Because you can insert a photo from your camera roll as a back ground you can set up all kinds of sorting, arranging and graphing activities for students.  It is super easy to search Google Images or other sources for a background image or take a photo of a worksheet and set it as the background to the activity.

You can then used colored cards, cards with words on them, symbols or photos as the manipulatives you move around on the background.  You can create graphs using blank colored cards or create math activities.  You can use real life photographs to create sequencing and retelling activities.  You can use pictures symbols (saved to your camera roll) for Talking Mat style activities.  You can take a screen shot of the final products and you can use for portfolios and assessment. 

The iCardSort website has a Public Decks you can download from their site including dolch words, numbers, alphabet and more.  There is also a manual and video tutorials on YouTube.

There are a few things I would like to see updated on this app.  I would like to be able to have text and an image on a card without the word going across the middle of the card (work around - have the word on the images in your camera roll).  It would be nice to be able to have different shaped notes - nothing fancy - just squares.  And in my wildest dreams if you could record audio on the cards that would rock.

I should note you can do similar things with much less expensive apps like Notefuly, maybe not as easily but you can do it. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

Keedogo and Keedogo Plus

Keedogo Plus with ClaroPDF
AssistiveWare, makers of Proloquo2Go and Pictello, have released a third party keyboard for iPad.  Third party keyboards are a new possibility in iOS 8 and higher.  They allow users to install and alternative keyboard on the iPad to use for typing.

Keedogo and Keedogo Plus are great keyboards for children, those with vision problems and emerging readers and writers.  Keedogo has a bold font, qwerty or abc layout and differentiated vowel keys.  Keedogo Plus has all the same features word prediction.

 I am also very anxiously awaiting Keeble which is AssistiveWare's next third party keyboard.  Keeble will include a wider variety of keyboard layouts, customizable features like colors, switch control, select on release and hold times. 

Keedogo and Keedogo Plus work beautifully in all apps.  Some of my favorite apps to use it with are ClaroPDF, PicCollage and Pictello.
Keedogo Plus with PicCollage

ClaroPDF is an amazing accessible PDF app.  It allows you to hear PDF files read aloud with highlighting, type, write and draw on the PDFs and insert pictures, diagrams and more.  It syncs with Dropbox and/or Google Drive.  If you need to do worksheet or study guide adaption on the fly you can use ClaroPDF with Prizmo to photograph text, scan it with OCR and open in ClaroPDF.

PicCollage is intended to make photocollages but it is a great, free app to do all sorts of multimedia projects with kids like labeling pictures, main idea or vocabulary collages and more.
Pictello is a story writing app designed for special needs users.  I use it with students for dozens of purposes.  Writing personal narratives, creative writing, adapting curriculum materials, talking photo albums, video modeling, picture recipes, social stories, life skill sequences, pragmatics practice stories and so much more.  Pictello's best feature is how amazingly easy it is to use.  Use the wizard feature and it walks you through making your book.  You can use text to speech in a variety of voices or record audio.  It has switch access if needed.  My students LOVE Pictello.  It is easily the number one app I use.

Before I wrap this up I do want to note that there is a known Apple bug in iOS 8 that can interfere with all third party keyboards.  It has nothing to do with Keedogo or Keedogo Plus.  If guided access is turned on and you use a third party keyboard you can have all your keyboards disappear.  The issue seems to have been at least somewhat fixed in iOS 8.0.2.  That being said go ahead and ignore the one star ratings based on the Apple bug!  I will vouch for Keedogo and Keedogo Plus.  They can make already good apps great and great apps amazing.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Real Cost of Premium AAC Apps

The "Real Cost" chart has been updated.

Recently Dynavox, whose five year cost was over a thousand dollars for the Compass app, has revamped their pricing structure as you can see below.  They lowered the subscription price to $99 a year and are now also offering one time purchase versions of the app in three versions,  "Compass", "Gateway" and "PODD".  The prices on all three are extremely reasonable for the value of the apps.  The subscription version is still free for speech therapists who enter an ASHA number.  The Word Power vocabulary is only available in the subscription version. 

I want to publicly thank Tobii/Dynavox for hearing the voices of teachers and parents and making this change.  School districts generally are unable to either make in-app purchases or use subscription based apps because of the way in-apps purchases work and how American school budgets function on a year to year basis.  This decision also restores some of my faith in Dynavox and the  acquisition of Dynavox by Tobii.  So, thank you. 

Moving in the opposite direction is Saltillo and the TouchChat or TouchChat HD app which has added high cost, subscription based live chat and phone support.  This add on brings their five year cost to over $2000 if you choose a premium vocabulary, at least one high quality voice, use of the sharing server and the live chat (but not phone) support option.  It is important to remember, also, that TouchChat is not a universal app so you must purchase it, the premium vocabulary and high quality voice twice if you wish to run it on an iPad and an iPod or iPhone.  At this time the TouchChat app is likely not a cost effective choice with so many other robust and comprehensive apps for much more reasonable prices.  I know I join the voices of many others who urge Saltillo and TouchChat to revamp their pricing structure into something understandable and useable.  Many of us would gladly pay a higher initial cost to avoid the nickel and diming effect that all the add-ons create.  This evaluator and AAC presenter will no longer be suggesting TouchChat until some comprehensive changes are made. 

You can see the chart in full screen view here.

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

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