Importance of speech and the right communication aids to support young children – IDPwD

Emotion emoticons used by a psychologist during a therapy session with a child with an autism spectrum disorder.

Melissa Barnes (Team Leader & Speech Pathologist) and Elise Dymke (Speech Pathologist) work at Scope. They speak to us about the importance of supporting young children with speech development issues to reach their full potential using different types of communication aids.

Please highlight the importance of supporting young children during their formative years to find ways of communicating that work for them.
Communication is considered an essential human need and therefore regarded as a basic human right. Nobody should be denied the opportunity to communicate to the best of their ability. Some children will use words to communicate but others will use alternative forms such as sign language, pictures, noises, facial expression, body language and gesture. Other children will use a voice output communication device that is specific to their needs. Having a way to communicate is essential to help children to build relationships, support their interaction and engagement with their family and peers and participate in their community. Children who don’t have a formal system of communication may use behaviours to get their needs met. These behaviours can be positive or challenging but they do not allow for effective communication. By providing children with the tools they need for communication, they have a voice.

Why is language so important in the developmental years of young children?
Language (communication) is an essential part of development as it supports a child’s play skills, friendships, relationship with family, participation in education and feeling connected.

Can you explain what a communication aid is?
Communication aids are known as a form of Augmentative and Alternative Communication or AAC. Augmentative communication supplements a child’s existing skills such as using Key Word Sign or pictures to help make their communication message clearer or more detailed. Alternative communication is typically used when speech is absent and acts as their voice, for example, a voice output communication device.

How do AAC devices improve communication?
Many parents are concerned when AAC is first discussed that it will stop their child from talking or make them “lazy”. Research shows that AAC can have positive effects on speech and language development. It does not stop an AAC user from learning to speak if they are able. AAC can be seen as a “bridge” to spoken communication for some children. Learning to use AAC teaches language, vocabulary and reasons to communicate. For children who are using behaviours to communicate, introducing AAC can replace these behaviours with something functional. For example, a child who cries when they are hungry can instead press a button or use a sign or picture to say they want something to eat. The child’s communication becomes more effective as it is more easily understood by the people around them.

What are some of the different types of AAC available?
AAC can come in many forms that are generally sorted into high-tech or low-tech. Low-tech devices are non-electronic and include pictures, communication boards and PODD books. Some of the benefits to low-tech AAC include not needing batteries, being low-cost and being easily integrated into the environment, for example a food chat-board on the fridge. High-tech devices use batteries and generally have a wider range of vocabulary and customisation. High-tech AAC often includes voice output and allows for more independence as it does not need a trained communication partner. Children can access AAC in many ways including eye gaze, switches or partner assisted scanning if they are not able to use the device by pointing and pressing buttons. With so many options available, it is important to receive support from your speech pathologist to find the right AAC device your child.

Can you please describe the process of teaching a client’s parents and teachers how to use his/her communication device?
Aided language modelling is an evidenced based approach to teach children how to use AAC. Just as children need to hear words to learn to talk, they must see their device used to learn how to use it. Aided language modelling teaches everyone in the child’s life how to use their device. In the beginning, focus on modelling core/important words for the child. The parent may need to model a single word many times before the child knows how to use it. While it is important to learn to request, you also need to model throughout the day in many situations so that a child learns how to greet, protest, comment, negotiate and ask for assistance. It can often seem overwhelming to start with but by focusing on a few words at a time, it breaks it down into small steps – you are learning at the same time as your child.