Beginning Communicators

Beginning Communicators |

Beginning communicators are individuals of any age, who are in the early stages of communication development. They are using techniques for communicating and need their partner/listener to interpret what they mean. They may be very good at communicating about the "here and now" but have difficulty talking about things that are not present.They are learning to use symbols (one thing that stands for another) so they communicate about more topics, and with more people.

Communication Profiles

What is a Communication Profile?

A communication profile...
  • May also be called a Dictionary or Inventory
  • Documents the unique ways the person “says” things
    • A description of all the ways the person communicates and how other people communicate with him
  • Developed by the person and his team
  • Distributed
    • All people who support the person should have access to a copy
    • Shared across settings (e.g., school, work, home)
      • People can note significant events and potential topics (e.g., recent trips, illnesses)
  • Easily updated
    • Has a working copy (separate from formal plan) that can easily be updated
    • Include questions and guesses to help team problem-solve (what does it mean when he ___s?)
    • Formally reviewed and/or updated every year during annual meeting

How to Make a Communication Profile

  • Gather family and staff who know the person well
  • Describe how you know the person is trying to say ___
    • For ideas, see Communication Brainstorming Worksheet on the How I Can Help page
    • Be sure to include any messages that are special or unique to the person

Sample Communication Profile:
comm profile.JPG
Sample Communication Profile
Download information about and a blank copy of a Communication Profile (Word or PDF file).

Why use is a Communication Dictionary?
A communication profile helps the person:
  • Reduce frustration
    • Everyone knows what the person is trying to communicate and provides a consistent response
      • He knows what to expect
  • Be motivated and encouraged
    • Will continue engaging in communication since it works!
    • Learning is rewarded since his partners respond
  • Actively participate
    • Undocumented communication attempts can be:
      • Ignored, misunderstood, not recognized
    • Person will eventually “give up” trying to communicate, since his attempts are:
      • Frequently unsuccessful or unrewarding
      • “Learned Helplessness” or Passive
  • Experience more independence and success
    • Partners (even potential partners) are better prepared to "read" & respond to him

A communication profile helps the partners/listeners:
  • Partners know how person communicates
  • New or less-familiar partners get to know person and her unique ways of expressing herself
    • Substitute staff, new teachers, etc.
  • Increase expectations for person to communicate across environments
  • Document person's progress, since new vocabulary will be added across time

Tips and Techniques to Support Communication and Learning

Take Time - Take Turns

Give extra time to process and respond
  • Spoken language is difficult to process quickly
    • Especially complex adult language (remember last time you talked to doctor/specialist?)
  • Use simple 2-3 word phrases
    • Can increase length depending on person's level of understanding
  • Add “quiet” time to listen, understand, & respond
    • This helps her be more successful and more confident
    • Important for decision-making

Show and Tell
  • Add visuals to the words to increase understanding
    • Use body language, gestures, objects, pictures
  • Helps naturally slow speed of interaction
    • Ensure extra time (count to 5 or 10) between pieces of information presented
  • Example:
      • NAME, look! [point to calendar]
      • You’re going to the doctor.
      • That’s in 1 week.

Use Visual Supports
Example Visual Support - task schedule for brushing teeth.

  • Pictures or words to reinforce or add to the spoken message
  • Enhance understanding (& reduce anxiety)
  • Increase predictability
    • Warn of schedule changes
  • Provide information about expectations
  • Support independence and participation

  • Use these ideas to make your own Visual Supports:
materials resources.JPG
Sample resources for making visual supports, including Google Images.
resources for materials1.JPG
Table of free sites for pictures and communication boards.

Use Cause-Effect Activities and Items

What is Cause-Effect?

  • Understanding how actions impact the objects/people in environment
  • Important skill for learning & development
    • Knowing she can control her environment helps her understand power of communication
    • She can make things happen through communication
      • Actions, facial expressions, gestures, sounds, or words

  • For more about Cause-Effect, click here to download a "Sensory-Motor and Communication Screening Tool"
    • This tool (presented at ISAAC 2012 conference by Deb Thomas & Karen Baron) helps you recognize the person's skills and set goals for further development

Learning Cause-Effect

  • Learn by repetition
    Picture of dominoes falling
    • Experience same action over and over
      • For example: flicking a light switch to watch it go on/off – again and again
  • Gain exposure to objects with clear cause-effect relationships
    • Demonstrate impact he can have on his environment
    • e.g., Music only plays if I press this button
  • Choose fun & motivating items
    • She should be reinforced and rewarded for using the item
    • Let her know that she is the one making item work
  • Use a variety of items
    • Helps person discriminate between reactions of different buttons, symbols, & objects.
    • Recognize different actions produce different results

Using Assistive Technology for Cause-Effect

  • Specialized or Modified items
    • Easier to use (buttons are larger, more sensitive, or brighter-colored)
  • Switch adapted
    switch fan.png
    Picture of switch-adapted fan
    • Add a cord allowing use of a switch (external button)
    • When press switch (plugged into item’s cord), it turns on item!
    • Press button again & again to watch item activate
      • Battery interrupters add switch cords to existing items
        • One example is from Enabling Devices (Click here to see catalog)

  • See the page on technology and i devices for information on apps that can be used to support cause and effect!

Explore Voice-Output Devices
local aac stores.JPG
Local stores may sell recordable products - see "AAC 101" page for more.

  • Devices that store & play-back recorded messages
    • Person can repeatedly hear (and learn to “pair”) spoken word with actions/items
  • Allow person to understand how speech impacts his environment
    • Use in addition to other strategies & supports
    • Will enhance both his understanding and his use of speech for communication
  • Change the device when you change words
    • E.g., switch the picture, add texture
    • Helps person realize it’s a different message
  • Use it as her “voice”
    • Record someone who sounds like her
    • Choose same gender, similar voice / accent

  • Record short, repeated messages
    • Help assign meaning to specific spoken words
    • Understand how same message can be used in different contexts (times of day, people, settings)
    • Messages can Ask for:
      • Objects (cup, TV)
      • Actions (more, all done, come here)
      • Activities (go for walk, sing, drive)

    • Messages can be Social:
      • Hi, My name is ___, Want to watch with me?

  • Record sequenced messages
    • Help understand how things stop or continue in-a-row
    • Sequences can be:
      • Ordered (counting, steps to getting dressed, ABCs)
      • Songs/ Books (each line recorded separately)
      • Games (ready-set-go, Simon Says instructions)

Find and Use Meaningful "Symbols"

What are Symbols?

  • Symbols represent meaning
    • For example, picture of remote control & recorded word “TV” represent same message

  • Symbols “stand for” something else
    • Examples:
symbol types.png
Different pictures of the same thing - 4 symbol types.

Objects TV remote = activity of watching show
Parts of objects keys = go for ride
Textures/Fabrics soft fabric of blanket = sleep
Gestures/Signs pantomime throwing = play ball
Pictures photo of Grandma = Grandma
Sounds “meow” = cat
Spoken names “Grandma” = Grandma

  • Symbols should be very concrete at first
    • Look exactly like (or very similar to) the object/activity they represent

Symbol Types
Example Visual Scene Displays of the zoo.

  • Depend on person’s vision, motor skills, & learning/understanding
  • Depend on environment (partners, setting, culture)

  • Visual Scene Displays
    • Whole views, in-context
    • New research – may be more effective for certain people

Assessing Symbol Types

  • Use functional items/pictures to find out what type of symbol makes sense to the person. Use a variety of types to "represent" the same message.
    • Read more under "Considering AAC: What to do First." This district has posted a wonderful resource called "Screening for Symbol Representation" that will help your team explore different types of pictures.
    • You can also construct your own Functional Symbol Kit. Click here to download printable pictures, words, etc. to explore symbol types.

Teach Symbolic Communication

  • Goal is increasing “Conventional” signals the person uses (and understands)


  • Recognize and respond to all communicative behaviors (even “non-symbolic”)
  • Be aware and notice all the ways the person communicates
  • Acknowledge to the message, NOT the form


  • Assume competence
    • When in doubt, OVER-estimate
  • “As if” principle
    • When we act as if a behavior means something, over time it will take on that meaning
    • FIRST
      • infant is hungry --> he cries --> partner feeds him
      • infant notices that crying results in feeding
      • infant learns that crying communicates “I’m hungry”
    • LATER
      • people learn that talking communicates wants/needs
        • Like saying “cookie” to pick out specific snack (instead of just “I’m hungry”)


  • Choose an existing behavior
  • Assign functional meaning to it
  • Respond consistently to help person pair (their action = this meaning)
    • Document so that response is same across settings, partners
    • Record new communication symbols using the above "Communication Profile"

  • Example: Marc taps his chest
    • Interpret this gesture as “please”
      • When Marc taps his chest, respond as if he requested “please”
    • Repeat across settings and partners
    • Begin to wait until Marc gestures before responding

"Sabotage" the Environment

  • Requires the person to communicate more
  • Gives him more practice with successful interactions

  • Example:
    • Set a timer to turn off TV after a few minutes (knowing that person will want to watch more)
    • Wait (and watch) for person to use a symbol to continue the activity
      • Reach toward remote, Look at picture of remote, OR Press button to play recorded “more” message
    • Repeat!

Offer Options & Opportunities for Choice-Making

  • Offer preferred & non-preferred choices
    • Hold up 2 Symbols (objects, pictures, voice-output devices, etc)
      • Favorite cookie vs. non-favorite carrot stick
    • Person receives whichever one she selects
      • Even if non-preferred
      • Reinforces her ability to choose

    • What If…
      • If she selects an item she does not truly want
      • Give it to her for a brief (20-30 second) period
      • Remove it and offer her 2 options again
        • This is NOT a punishment

  • Expand Vocabulary
    • Start with 1-3 familiar symbols or messages
    • Wait until person understands & reliably makes choices from these options
    • Slowly add more vocabulary/options
      • Still only offer 2-3 at a time

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