What is assistive technology?

Assistive technology is any kind of technology and/or tool that can be used to enhance the functional independence of a person with a disability. Often, for people with disabilities, accomplishing daily tasks such as communicating with others, going to school or work, or participating in activities can be a challenge. Assistive Technology (AT) devices are tools to help overcome those challenges and enable people living with disabilities to enhance and have access to a quality of life, that may otherwise not be known, and lead more independent lives.

The mission of this blog is to serve as a voice of a constant researcher in the field of educational and assistive technologies so that the best products, strategies and services may be located easily, in hopes that they will then be delivered, taught and used to better the lives of people with disabilities.


Aided Language Stimulation

If you are working with individuals who have complex communication needs (CCN), Aided Language Stimulation (ALS) is one of the most important startegies to leanr about and begin using immediately. The attitudes, beliefs and knowledge of the student's communication partners are pivotal in the success story of any kind of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC). For individuals with  CCN to learn to communicate, the people around them must:
  1. believe that everyone has a right to communicate 
  2. provide individuals with a communication system that enables that right
  3. believe in their ability to use language
  4. provide them with a system that enables them to use language
A way for us to do this is through the implementation of aided language stimulation (also known as aided language input).  Just as we do with all children that are learning language, we must  assign meaning to their first communication attempts and then continue to support and encourage them as they move to more and more complex systems.

By using ALS we are working with the individual with CCN as we do with all children using language: on their terms. It just looks a little different. ALS is a language approach in which the communication partner points out picture symbols on the learner's communication display and/or low tech symbols (such as picture boards and books) designed for that particular environment. While pointing we also add language and meaning to stimulate their input. We are modeling, just like we do with any child learning language. With typical children learning language, the child points to a dog and we say, "dog".  Through the ALS modeling process, we are using symbols interactively to demonstrate. We see a dog or the individual points to a dog, we say "dog" and point to a symbol of a dog, saying "dog" again. How do we teach any child learning language? We model. As we advance in the system we are also modeling how we got there both through actions and through words.

ALS is a technique to promote both symbol comprehension and symbol production among individuals who use picture communication systems, through both low and/or high tech.

The purpose of the process, by Carol Goossens', Sharon Sapp Crain and Pamela S. Elder, is to encourage functional communication within an activity-based framework. During ALS, an individual’s communication partner (parent, teacher, therapist...) points to a symbol while simultaneously producing the spoken word during a natural communicative environment and exchange. It is a multi-sensory approach to receptive language learning: the learner hears the word spoken and sees it at the same time.  This modeling of the communication system assists the learner to establish a visual and auditory understanding of how symbols can be combined to communicate during routine activities.

Research shows us that using this approach increases comprehension, motivates communication and assists with understanding the expectations. It has been found that by using pictures, we are making language and literacy development more visual.  It allows us to combine the auditory and the visual information together during our teaching.  It has proven to be a very successful technique.

Basically, it looks like this (from PrAACtical AAC):
STEP 1: Introduce the new word(s) using focused AIDED language stimulation
STEP 2: Teach the new word(s) with explicit instruction activities
STEP 3: Elaborate on the new word meanings with engaging practice activities
STEP 4: Provide repeated exposure to the new word(s) on an ongoing basis, in context of the activity
STEP 5: Check for understanding and reteach, as necessary. 

Aided language stimulation was originally designed for individuals with CCN however, it has also proven beneficial for students who are language delayed. It provides the opportunity to visually process words and symbols being concretely combined to form functional utterances within meaningful routines. 

Since the printed word accompanies each symbol on the display, aided language stimulation also may assist learners in reading development.   

Think of ALS as a teaching strategy. The adult points to symbols on the user's communication display as they interact and communicate verbally with the user. Symbol selection is always accompanied by its spoken definition (what the symbol stand for). Example: "We've got to OPEN (pointing to the symbol for OPEN) the BOX (pointing to the symbol for BOX) and PUT it IN (Pointing to the symbol for PUT IN) the BOWL (pointing to the symbol BOWL). 
  • In observing language stimulation being performed by the facilitator, the child can begin to establish a mental template of how symbols can be combined and recombined to communication during the specific activity for which the display was designed.
  • The technique mimics the natural way children learn to comprehend language, as it is providing symbol comprehension training.

This video talks about how important it is for adults to use the photos or symbols to talk to the child.

This is not a strategy reserved for highly trained professionals. Some of the best implementers of this strategy are often educational assistants and family members. Peers and siblings can get in on the action and be wonderful teachers also.  It should be used everywhere: classroom, playground, restaurant, therapy room, kitchen, while playing with play dough, playing house, with blocks or dolls.

Remember, talking to a child with their system validates their means of communication and gives the partner a good perspective on what the child is facing. 

  1. It takes time to get good at this. We’re speaking pidgin AAC until we get fluent, so just keep at it. Give yourself permission to be halting at first. Keep at it and the fluency will come.
  2.  It helps to start small. If the communication aid, SGD, or app is complex, don’t try to tackle everything at once. Get comfortable with modeling using the main pages or screens first, then move onto other places where vocabulary is stored.
  3. Along those lines, it helps to start off by modeling only familiar concepts. This makes it a bit easier to develop a smooth motor pattern for saying those words so that you can move from hunt-and-peck to slide-and-glide.
  4. Visual cues can be very helpful in reminding us to use the strategy. A quick gesture from a colleague or a sticky note can help us get back on track when we start to say things without the AAC.
  5. Visual cues can be very helpful in reminding us to use the strategy. A quick gesture from a colleague or a sticky note helped us get back on track when we started to say things without the AAC. We use visual reminders with folks who use AAC, so this was a good opportunity to practice what we preach.
  6. Using aided language input helped us pick up on flaws in the programming or design of the AAC system. It helps us to spot those errors in the color coding, typos in the text, a misplaced modifier, etc.It’s contagious! The more we used aided language input, the more we saw other people using it as well. In this case, more is better.
  7. They will not only learn better but will usually really like seeing you use it too. Sometimes they would happily shove us out of the way so that they could help us find a word. I am sure everyone would be pleased to take that kind of help.
Active participation means that the learner needs to do more than just listening. They need to have opportunities to initiate and respond to communication. They need to have specific opportunities to ask questions, answer questions, ask for things, refuse things, explain, vent, and even argue.

Explore... start bringing language into your environment through the use of language supported by symbols. For additional information on the implementation of this approach see: Aided Language Stimulation

Consider: The more we use AAC, the more our beginning communicators will use it.
Simply said, Aided Language Stimulation: Increase Input to Increase Output!