Back to school is upon us, and for a new crop of young adults, this is the last year of high school before they transition out of formal academic education. The transition from high school to the “real world” of employment, independent living, and/or post-secondary education is both an exhilarating and overwhelming time for all families, let alone those who communicate via augmentative/alternative communication (AAC) strategies. The familiar supports of the school system - IEPs, service minutes, special education - are replaced by a new set of systems, people and acronyms. There is a lot to navigate, but one silver lining - the AAC supports and systems that are familiar to the student can be a through-line from a high school setting to whatever comes next. With a little forethought, we can make sure the AAC setup is beneficial for new opportunities while also instructional for new conversation partners. We’ve got a year (at least) - let’s use it!
Here are a few tips to consider when supporting AAC users as they transition from school to whatever comes next:
1- Consider how and why the student currently uses AAC
At this point of transition, what will the new communication partners and environments be? What supports will be left behind and what new supports will be available?
Some students may want to think about using AAC for the first time. In their post-high school endeavors, they will experience people with different levels of training in disability, different levels of familiarity with AAC and unique sensory and social environments post-high school. Many autistic adults report that using AAC part time can help them communicate to their fullest potential.
Think about how the AAC system will be used in new settings. Do we need to start teaching or prioritize the use of the AAC device for distance communication, like texting, emailing or video calling? Sending a photo of the workplace on arrival can reassure worried parents; texting that the bus is late can help increase independence; emailing a supervisor or professor with questions is critical in self-advocacy. Do we need smaller, more discrete choice boards or self-advocacy phrases that can be worn on a lanyard or adhered to a lap tray? Do we need to update phrases to better reflect the student’s age and communication environment? No one wants to tell their manager they have to “go potty!”
Think also about the device size. Many students receive a tablet-sized device during school when many parts of the day are focused on academics and lectures. Does it make more sense to have a phone-sized device for a workplace that involves physical activity? Would a larger screen be able to fit on a desk in a lecture hall and split the screen between the communication program and a note-taking system?
2-Consider what language and social skills will optimize independence, self-determination and safety
Has the student learned to retell a sequence of events in order to report out on a job task or transmit a negative experience? Can the student easily ask questions and state directives that will give them more control about how and why they interact with support personnel (e.g. request physical support, reject physical support, remind others of accommodations needed, understand methods of feedback on job tasks or assignments). Can the individual express preferences about the activities they will be involved in? Do they have access to (and have they been taught) vocabulary related to their new environments including self-advocacy phrases? A great resource for this: AAC in Secondary School: 5 AACtionable Steps to Support the Transition Process : PrAACtical AAC
3-Once you have a system that works for the student, make sure the student has their OWN AAC system, with their OWN words
A school-provided device will stay with the district once the student is no longer enrolled.
Consider getting an equivalent device either through insurance, a DDA waiver, some state TED programs, through grant funding or via private pay.
Make sure to get backups of any AAC vocabularies the school used - whether that is a high tech backup or digital and/or physical copies of low-tech systems. These should continue to grow with the user in their new settings.
4-Make sure there are readily available resources for new communication partners
Some parents have made a “living document” with this information by creating an online document, using a url shortener like bit.ly to make a custom web address (Example: bit.ly/AnitaComm). You may even want to create a QR code with a link to the document that can be placed in the person’s living space, wheelchair, or even on a wearable item like a lanyard or t-shirt! That way, people can use their phone’s camera in order to quickly pull up information they need.
Along with a job resume or a college application, a communication resume is a great way to let people know about how to optimize relationships with the AAC user. See example here under Communication Resume: bit.ly/AnitaComm These are similar to communication dictionaries or communication passports, but presented in a manner more akin to a professional resume.
5-Consider including pre-programmed information about the student, student’s needs and the new setting in which they will participate
Especially when it comes to safety and social engagement, pre-programmed phrases can help speed up the process of communicating. Program in emergency contacts, allergen and health statements, etc. You can also program in phrases like “what did you do this weekend?” “I can’t believe it’s only Monday” for easy, socially familiar banter.
Think about (or better yet, brainstorm with their job coach) and pre-program any scripts they may need in their new workplace (e.g. “Hello, thank you for coming to X, we will be with you shortly”). Consider doing this with highly specialized vocabulary as well (e.g. TPS report).
There is so much to consider as an AAC user transitions from high school. As someone will likely say in a graduation speech in June, “the journey matters more than the destination” - so take the first step on the journey today!