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Three “Low-Tech” Options to Build Communication at Home

Written by Allison Slone, MS, CCC-SLP

The month of January TheraCare is spotlighting Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC). What is AAC? According to the American Speech-Language Hearing Association, AAC “includes all forms of communication (other than oral speech) that are used to express thoughts, needs, wants, and ideas.”

Maybe you’ve come across a man who has lost his ability to speak due to a disease like ALS, who now uses something that looks like an I-Pad to talk and communicate. This is considered “high-tech” AAC. Keep in mind though, it’s also considered AAC when you wrinkle your nose as your wife walks into the room eating chips with French onion dip. The facial expression of a wrinkled nose is conveying the message, “Hey! Your dip smells bad!” without needing to say the words.

Our ability to convey our wants and needs to communicate with other people is a huge part of what makes our lives rich and enjoyable. Parents have high hopes for their children’s lives, daydreaming about the day they’ll hear that first word (probably arguing about whether it will be “mama”, “dada”, or “pterodactyl”). So, when months pass and their child hasn’t made a peep, parents start to worry. Is there something wrong? Will my child ever find their voice?

Here are three “low-tech” things parents can do at home to facilitate (or “augment”) their child’s early speech and language skills:

1. Communication Boards
If your child is not yet using words to communicate, you can create a basic communication board at home to help them express their wants and needs. For example, you can use a piece of cardstock and have two highly preferred options for playtime, such as a picture of a trampoline and a picture of bubbles. You could ask the child “What should we play? Trampoline or bubbles?” and have the child select the preferred item. Your speech-language pathologist should be able to give you great ideas for what type of communication board matches your child’s current skill level, as well as suggestions for appropriate use.

Don’t feel like you have to start from scratch! There are a lot of great resources out there for pre-made communication boards, like this:

2. Picture exchange                                                                                                                                                        The concept of picture exchange is that the children are giving a picture (the symbol of the item that they want) to the intended communication partner in exchange for the item itself. An example would be having a Velcro strip on your fridge with pictures of the various contents of your fridge in it. Your child comes up to you and hands you a picture of milk. You say, “Oh! You want some milk!” and provide the child with milk.

Here is a link to some free picture exchange resources:

3.  Sign Language
Sign language is not just for people who are hearing impaired! It can be an effective form of adaptive communication for children who are delayed in verbal expression. Suggestions for beginning words to learn would be highly used/preferred signs like “eat”, “drink”, “ball”, etc. We would caution against using a sign like “more”—it’s a very abstract sign that can be overused, it makes more sense to teach the child to use signs that mean the actual items they are requesting.

This link provides the first 100 typical ASL signs used between a parent and young child:

If your child isn’t meeting his or her speech and language milestones, talk with your pediatrician and voice your concerns. Research has shown time and time again that early intervention, rather than the “wait it out” method is best practice for optimal results.

Seeking an evaluation with a speech-language pathologist (SLP) is a great step. An SLP will be able to work with you to form a plan for intervention and to figure out an effective method of communication. Your speech-language pathologist will also be able to advise you on when a formal AAC evaluation is appropriate.

*Did you know that TheraCare has a trained Augmentative and Alternative Communication Device Evaluator on staff? Rachel Moore is one of the Midwest’s leading trained ACD providers. She collaborates with the other therapists at TheraCare to provide resources, training, and assistance for all AAC device users in-house.*