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AAC 101: Start with Communication & Language

In our first AAC 101 post from earlier this month, I outlined some basic principles to help you approach AAC Assessment for communicators with developmental differences. It was super fun to unpack the first steps in this process during Part 1 of our AAC Assessment Compass Training series last week! In today's post, I'll outline some of the highlights from Part 1 of the series to help you dive a bit deeper into a framework to support AAC assessment. As with all great speech-language pathology work, we start with Communication & Language, and we keep our eye on those gems throughout the AAC Journey! Here ae some helpful #AACTipsnTools to help you gather this key information that guides the feature matching and intervention phases of your AAC Journey.

Interview and Surveys are Gold

When it comes to assessing the current communication skills of communicators with complex needs, the use of interview and survey tools to obtain valuable information for those partners closest to the communicator is essential. I find that a well-formed survey or questionnaire sent to a family prior to my assessment session is not only a great time-saver, cutting down on interview needs within the assessment session itself and guiding assessment activity prioritization, but is perhaps the single-most valuable data collection tool I have for answering those key questions outlined in my last post: a) How is the client already communicating? b) How is that working with each partner within each context? c) How do the current communication skills compare to developmental expectations and communication needs? d) What concurrent sensory (vision or hearing) and motor (fine and gross) challenges are present or suspected? In fancy terms, I want to know about pre-intentional and pre-linguistic communication (Bates Model), communicative means and functions (Wetherby); language content, form, and use (Bloom and Lahey, Brown's Stages); and the everyday impact these skills and challenges have upon a communicator's (and family's) everyday life.

You can find some great links to caregiver interview assessment tools, along with a step-by-step framework for tackling AAC assessment in my AAC Assessment Compass Field Guide. For a FREE, sample, pre-assessment survey, visit our Tools page.

Think Outside the Box for Observational Assessment

Evaluating skills through observation is not news to communication and education professionals. Nor is the high value of observing communicators with complex needs interacting with familiar partners and in motivating and familiar contexts. During these rather interesting times of virtual everything, I've really tried to maximize observation during my virtual assessments by making it a priority over more "formal" assessment strategies. After all, I want to see what is going well and what is challenging for this communicator in his/her own element and with his/her favorite people, not communication with me as the "stranger" in the Zoom room!

I set up observation expectations with families ahead of our visit, asking them to think about a few natural and enjoyable routines that might happen during session time on a normal day. I turn my camera off and just hang out and watch at first, perhaps offering some coaching later on in my observation if I see valuable opportunities to reveal potential skills in the communicator or partner with a little support. I emphasize with the frailly that I just want them to act like they normally would during this game or routine, and to the best of their abilities, try to pretend I'm not watching them (easier said then done, but I think this reminder helps!). I learn so much from this time- what brings each person joy in this interaction, what's hard, what communication signals are noticed and which signals aren't, what does this communicator do well when he/she is jazzed about something? With a trained eye, and perhaps some informal assessment checklists at your fingertips, you can gather 99% of the communication skills information you need from interview and observation! Seriously, you can!

Let's be honest through, sometimes our communicators have other ideas that don't include sticking within the little Zoom window and performing for you, even if mom or dad thought this activity would be communication gold. This is where that outside of the Zoom box thinking (or clinic room thinking) comes in handy and I utilize some less conventional observation strategies, like reviewing video footage of successful and challenging communication interactions offered by the family. Video clips are so helpful in capturing communicators in various moments of their lives, rather than relying on that single snapshot in your assessment session. Clips can be shared by family at your request ahead of time, using a cloud storage link of their choosing, and viewed by you and your team prior to, during, or even after your initial assessment session. Coach families a bit on the types of clips you're looking for- those moments of sparkle, when the communicator is engaged and using his best skills; those meltdown moments when communication breakdowns occur and tempers are short; those moments with grandma (who couldn't make it to the assessment session) but who cares for the communicator most days and has an entirely different interaction experience than mom or dad.

The AAC Assessment Compass Field Guide has great resources to make the most out of observational assessment, including resources for skills checklists that can help organize your thoughts as you observe and translate those thoughts into an assessment report!

Pulling It All Together

In class last week, we talked about using the AAC Journey Framework to interpret our communication skills and challenges data collected from interview, observation, and other valuable assessment strategies. We can use these "communicator categories" to help us form developmentally sound and functional intervention goals and to match the AAC features needed to provide effective communication tools that support those communicators in reaching their goals.

n my next post in the AAC 101 series, I'll continue this conversation of language and communication at the heart of all things AAC as we explore comparing skills to age expectations and needs, comparing needs to next-step skills to shape, and matching AAC system features that support those next skill steps so that we can provide an effective means of communication for our communicators to learn and thrive.

Want to learn more about AAC assessment?

If you missed Part 1 of the training series and are interested in watching the recording, visit our Trainings page to connect with this and other, on-demand learning opportunities.

What are your gem strategies for navigating communication assessment in AAC?

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