Little Leaps Group Therapy transitioning to year-round school: What you should know
March 28, 2017
Communication Boosting Alternatives
May 9, 2016
In a previous post, we discuss augmentative alternative communication. Here, we will explain a little further as to the benefits of two specific types of communication systems: American Sign Language (ASL) and the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS).
According to most research, a child begins to babble around 12 months old. By the age of two, toddlers typically have at least 50 or more words that they use frequently from day to day.
While many children begin speaking in these stages, you might imagine how a parent would be concerned if their child is not meeting the above milestones. This is why one of the number one questions therapists are asked most by parents is "How do we get our child to talk?". The answer to this question is hardly simple, nor is it the same across all children.
Some children pick up sounds and words quickly, often forming sentences after the aid of Speech and/or ABA Therapy; yet other other children continue to struggle with simple sounds. Many parents feel desolate and disappointed: communication is so important- virtually needed for almost every aspect of life. How will their child have a successful and fulfilling life without the ability to talk?
Here's the good news: "vocal/expressive speech" is not the only form of "communication" that will help your child successfully express their wants and needs. Effective communication skills are also possible through American Sign Language (ASL) and the Picture Communication System (PECS).
What is ASL?
Sign language uses gestures and symbols in place of or alongside any expressive word. According to the National Association of the Deaf "ASL is a visual language. With signing, the brain processes linguistic information through the eyes. The shape, placement, and movement of the hands, as well as facial expressions and body movements, all play important parts in conveying information." Sign language can be substituted and can be developed for use with complex sentences and thoughts as expressive language.
Who is a good candidate for ASL?
Children who have difficulty approximating words, but have good fine motor or imitation skills.
What signs should be taught first?
Any highly motivating item/activity should be targeted first. These signs will be easiest to teach because your child will be motivated to get access to the item/activity. In cases where the sign may be too difficult for the fine motor skills of the child, an adapted (or modified and easier version of the sign) should be initially taught. Parents should also use basics signs as much as possible when involving the child in daily routines (ie eating food, going to bed). This is important as children can naturally pick up these signs from constantly seeing them every day. It is also important to note that sighs involving less complicated fine motor should be taught first, as they will be easier for the child to produce.
What are PECS?
According to the developers of PECS, Andrew S. Bondy, Ph.D. & Lori Frost, M.S., CCC/SLP, “PECS begins by teaching an individual to give a picture of a desired item to a “communicative partner", who immediately honors the exchange as a request. The system goes on to teach discrimination of pictures and how to put them together in sentences. In the more advanced phases, individuals are taught to answer questions and to comment.” There are seven phases of PECS. Typically, pictures are used in a Velcro book that the child takes with them everywhere they go.
Who is a good candidate for PECS?
Children who have difficulty approximating words, but who also may have difficulty with imitation or fine motor skills needed for ASL. This style is also beneficial for those with strong receptive identification skills as it will help strengthen the understanding of what the pictures represent.
What PECS pictures should be taught first?
As with ASL, any highly motivating item/activity should be targeted first. Pictures should be clear and as accessible as possible to the child throughout the day. This way, requests can be accessed and generalized in many settings. Some families chose to start off with more generalized photos of the typical items a child wants in easy to access places (ie refrigerator, dining room table). *Please note that the PECS system has a specific protocol that should be used in order to ensure the child truly understands the exchange system.
What will teaching these communication systems accomplish?
Imagine a therapist walking into your home and suggesting that you put some of your child's expressive language programs on hold so that they can teach "sign language" or “pecs”. You might be skeptical. After all, you want your child to talk. But here are some of the important reasons why therapists use these alternative/augmentive forms of communication:
If used appropriately, it can enhance the possibility of future vocal speech
It always a child to have access to needs and wants in their daily life, allowing them to become more a part of their world and independent.
It can be paired with already developed/ current speech to help increase fluency and better articulation
It can reduce negative behaviors in children who often exhibit frustration/behaviors during times they are unable to communicate effectively.
It can successfully provide a form of language in the natural environment/community so that other people can understand the child (i.e. teachers at school, peers at the playground)
It may increase a child's ability to learn more language and other skills: the more functional and successful they become in any communication ability, the more reinforcing language (in any form) becomes
Parents, siblings, teachers, & peers can now participate more in the child's communication, which can reinforce and increase social skills
It may increase a child's ability to attend and focus during the teaching phases of either of these communication systems
Now imagine your mouth being taped shut for an entire week-you would most likely find the experience frustrating. It wouldn't be fair to deny you access to the items you need or want just because you suddenly lost the ability to "speak with your voice." The same must go with our children; it is important to provide those who have difficulty using vocal speech with the capability of having their needs and wants met by teaching alternative forms of communication. Remember that using these alternatives does NOT mean that your child will never use expressive language or speak. However, these tools can be used to help bridge the communication gap until they get there!
Here are some websites that provide examples of some basic sign language and PECS communication examples.