For nonverbal children and children with speech delays, the inability to communicate often snowballs into a variety of other problems. When we’re able to unlock this ability, it can lead the child down a path of incredible progress. For many children, the key has been assistive communication technology.
There are many reasons why a child might be nonverbal or experience speech delays. It’s a common symptom of autism, down syndrome, deafness or hard of hearing, and a range of other diagnoses. Although a speech delay can often be overcome, the inability to communicate even for a short time in one’s life can be extremely challenging. What if you weren’t able to talk for just one day? You can imagine the problems it would create and the frustration you would feel.
I observed the challenges ineffective communication creates in the early childhood inclusive and self-contained classrooms in which I taught. If a child cannot communicate their needs or desires in an appropriate manner, they often resort to inappropriate behavior. This affects their ability to have their basic needs met (eating, toileting) and creates many social and emotional challenges.
A nonverbal child wants a toy that another child is using. Without the words to ask for the toy, they simply (and often aggressively) grab it out of the other child’s hands.
A nonverbal child is hungry but cannot ask for food. They become angry or distraught. The resulting behavior can be extreme—sometimes violent, often emotional outbursts.
In the world of special education, we often say that all behavior is a form of communication. This helps us to look at the problematic behavior from a different perspective. To address a challenging behavior, we might first try to change the method of communication to one that is more appropriate. Assistive communication technology can do just that.
I worked in early childhood inclusive classrooms and self-contained that implemented assistive communication technologies, also called Augmented and Alternative Communication (AAC). These gave the children, often for the first time in their lives, the ability to clearly communicate their needs. I can tell you, it changed everything.
Slowly but surely, and for some quite rapidly, behavior progressed. Aggressive and emotional outbursts declined. Positive social interactions increased. Children were able to participate in group activities, in shared reading, and in inclusive curriculum. They showed progress socially and cognitively. There are accounts of the technology being used to help elementary-aged children meet national curriculum levels.
The technology we used was the app Proloquo. We used it on an iPad, but families, teachers and caregivers have found success with the app on other devices such as smartphones. It’s a symbol-based app that uses simple visual depictions of actions or objects to help the child communicate. The technology is scalable, meaning children of a range of ages (I worked with children as young as 3 years using it) and abilities may find success with it. As a child becomes comfortable with it, the app will push them to advance their communication skills with more complex vocabulary and grammar. At its peak, it can be used for expressive conversational communication at a high level.
This app is a wonderful example of how technology can be used in the classroom to help children of all abilities reach their goals.