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Supporting Learners with Early Level Communication

by Gillian McNeill

on Wed May 17, 2017

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University of Edinburgh
23rd November, 2017

Technology and the Autism Spectrum Condition learner: What works and why

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Today’s blog for National Digital Learning Week 2017 focuses on supporting communication. Last week at CALL we delivered a course on how to use iPads to support learners to develop their communication. We can and have provided a number of courses on this topic - this one focussed on using photo and picture-based apps, most relatively low-cost, for learners with complex communication support needs, who are at an early stage of their communication development.

Here’s a summary of the topics, apps and resources shared, which I’d like to share to a wider audience.

What communicative competences does a learner need to use digital technology for AAC?

Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) covers a wide range of techniques which support or replace spoken communication. These include gesture, signing, symbols, word boards, communication boards and books, as well as communication aids.

It is necessary to have different skills to be an effective user of AAC. Janice Light’s Framework of Competences for those using AAC (1989), classifies these as:

  • Operational -  knowing how to operate an aid or tablet device
  • Linguistic -  understanding of language, knowing how language is represented in the aid (ie text, symbols or photos) and how to access and use appropriate language structures to create a message
  • Social - an appreciation of social roles and skills, such as turn-taking
  • Strategic - skills that support communication, such as dealing with communication breakdown

It is important to know what skills a learner already has and what might need to develop to enable them to be a more effective communicator.

How can I assess competence for AAC?

It is through assessment that the abilities and skills that a learner can be identified and while full assessment by a Speech and Language Therapist/ AAC specialist is preferable, one such app that can help with providing information about operational and linguistic competence is - AAC Evaluation Genie (£11.99).

This is a tool to evaluate certain aspects of function, relevant to AAC: visual perception & discrimination, accuracy of targeting of different numbers and sizes of targets on screen, and some early vocabulary, basic concepts, and categorisation skills. It is also designed to be switch accessible and to allow evaluation of three common scan patterns, and a range of scan timings, from within the app. Once the subtests have been completed, the results are available to print and share.

Where can I find recommendations of which photo and picture-based apps to view?

View the CALL Scotland app wheels for guidance on our recommended AAC apps. One covering AAC apps for iPads and another covering AAC apps for android tablets.

Other lists we have referred to include:

What are CALL Scotland’s recommended photo and picture-based apps?

One of our favourite photo and picture-based apps which features on our iPad app wheel is SoundingBoard (free). This AAC app turns your iPad into a communication aid. It includes pre-loaded communication boards with simple images and photos, or you can create your own with up to 20-message locations with recorded voice output. Boards are also available from CALL Scotland for shared reading activities.

Another app for supporting communication is Book Creator (£4.99), which is a tool for creating multi-media e-books. It has an easy-to -use interface and supports learners with limited communication to share information with others through its recorded speech, sound and video features. For lots of ideas of ways that Book Creator can be used in the classroom for communication, literacy and organisation skills, see CALL Scotland’s downloadable poster.

Bitsboard (free) is a versatile app that can be used by learners at any level, with varied content (images, text and audio), across the curriculum. It provides a framework for making and personalising simple games/activities in various formats.

Boards are made by first taking photos or collecting images and then adding accompanying text and audio captions. The same board or set of images can then be used in a number of different games (from a choice of 30), with various levels of difficulty. Great for learners to develop communication, literacy and other skills.

GoTalk NOW! is a fully-featured, customisable communication app for the beginner to experienced communicato. It can be adapted to suit the needs of a wide range of users who have difficulty communicating or may have no speech at all.

This app stands out from other more basic communication apps, due to its flexibility of use, combined with the range of features, ease of use, documentation and support, but it’s wise to be sure that you will make use of these features in an app, as it’s not cheap (£74.99, plus the possibility of further in-app purchases needed). Thankfully there is a free cut-down version to download (GoTalk NOW LITE), available to help with your decision to purchase or not.

Can I create printed photo and symbol resources for AAC on my iPad?

Tools2talk+ (£46.99) has of a range of communication board/aid templates which can be individualised using a comprehensive symbol library (Picture Communication Symbols or COMPIC) or individualised photographs directly from your camera roll. Good for making communication resources ‘on the go’ when more comprehensive programmes are not available e.g. Boardmaker (est. £246+) or Matrix Maker Plus (£169).

Boards can be printed out for low tech communication/symbolising the environment or used on the screen, with voice output.

How do I set up the iPad to support learners to stay on task when using AAC apps?

Guided Access is an iPad accessibility feature which can be used to ‘lock’ the Home button, so that the learner can’t exit the app he/ she is in, until a passcode is entered. It also allows you to choose and control which other features of the iPad you want to make available to the user, and which features you might want to ‘lock’ or disable. There are lots of helpful video tutorials available to view by searching Google or YouTube.

On your iPad follow: Settings – General – Accessibility - Guided Access

Another important and useful protective step is to turn on Restrictions (aka Parental Controls). This prevents a learner getting access to specific features and content on the iPad such as the web browser Safari, YouTube etc., as well as options to prevent them from installing or deleting apps and making in-app purchases.

On your iPad follow: Settings – General – Restrictions

Check out CALL Scotland’s blogs and archived webinars for more detailed information on the above apps, as well as implementing use.

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