presume competence

AAC does not replace nonverbal communication

This is a continuation of a series on why I think it’s a mistake to ignore nonverbal communication in an attempt to force someone to use AAC. (The short version: it’s disrespectful, it undermines someone’s ability to communicate, and it prevents people from developing a valuable skill.)

One reason nonverbal communication is important for AAC users is that you always have your body with you. That is not necessarily the case for AAC devices.

AAC best practices say that someone should have them available constantly. In practice, people don’t. This is for several reasons. One is that it’s not practical to take a device to some places (for instance, most people are not willing to take a high tech device to the beach, and low tech devices are a lot more limiting.) Another reason is that sometimes people forget, or vastly underestimate how close a device needs to be in order to be immediately available. Or any number of reasons, some innocent and some horrifying, and many a mixture of both.

Also, people take devices away from AAC users. They shouldn’t, but they do. Sometimes it’s accidental; sometimes it’s on purpose. It’s never ok, but people do it a lot. If you’re teaching a nonverbal child to communicate, you need to keep this in mind when you’re considering what to teach them. You can’t assume that people will always treat them appropriately, and you can’t assume that they will always have their device. If they are capable of communicating with their body, it is an important skill for them.

Whatever else happens, someone always has their body with them. People can do a lot more if they can use their body to communicate. Communicating in body language can make it possible to communicate in a swimming pool. It can make it possible to communicate with dirty hands. It can make it possible for someone to indicate that their device isn’t within reach and that they need it. It can make it possible to communicate about pain in medical situations. It can make it possible to communicate when someone else doesn’t want you to, and has taken your device away. It can make friendship possible that otherwise wouldn’t be. And any number of other things, all of which are important.

And in order to be able to communicate with body language, people need opportunities to practice and develop this skill. If you ignore someone’s nonverbal communication to encourage AAC use, you’re making it harder for them to develop comprehensible body language. That’s not a good idea, because comprehensible body language is important. People won’t always have access to their device. They will always have their body.

tl;dr Nonverbal communication is important for nonverbal people, but parents are often encouraged to pretend not to understand it in order to encourage AAC use. This makes it harder for people to develop body language that others can understand. One reason this is a problem is that people don’t always have access to their devices, but people *do* always have access to their bodies. Nonverbal people should have support in developing nonverbal communication, because it is an important skill.

AAC is not a cure

This is a continuation of a series on why I think it’s important to listen to the nonverbal communication of nonverbal people. Often, parents are encouraged to not listen or to pretend not to understand, so that kids will be forced to learn AAC and use words. I think this is a mistake, for any number of reasons. The first post focused on the general importance of listening.

Another problem with this advice is that ignoring nonverbal communication discourages people from developing their nonverbal communication skills. That’s a bad idea, because nonverbal communication is a very useful skill for nonverbal people. It should be encouraged, not discouraged.

It’s valuable for several different reasons (and I assume, for many reasons I don’t know about.)

One is that AAC is not a cure, and it doesn’t make nonspeaking people just like people who can talk. Nonverbal people who have communication devices are still nonverbal. Currently existing AAC devices can’t do everything that speech can do. For instance:

  • AAC devices mostly can’t do tone. Voices usually can.
  • AAC devices can’t go everywhere. Voices usually can.
  • AAC devices can be taken away much, much more easily than voices can.
  • AAC is usually slow. That makes interrupting hard-to-impossible. Voices can usually be used to interrupt.
  • AAC is usually fairly quiet. Voices can usually yell.
  • Symbol-based devices generally don’t have anywhere close to sufficient vocabulary for emotional or physical intimacy. Voices do.
  • Many AAC devices give others a lot of control over what someone can say. Voices are usually more flexible.

For a lot of these things, body language and movement can be a more effective way of communicating than using a speech device. For instance, putting up a hand to say “stop!” is a lot more likely to be understood quickly than using an AAC device to say the same thing.

Similarly, most symbol sets developed that touch on sexuality at all assume the main reason people need sexual vocabulary is to be able to report abuse. Most of them don’t have robust symbols for discussing sexuality and sexual desire — and most of them don’t have any symbols for emotional intimacy at all. Body language can communicate things that a system designed this way can’t.

Another reason AAC is not like speech is that people who are nonspeaking, are nonspeaking for reasons. And AAC does not make those reasons go away.

Some people are nonspeaking because words are unnatural, painful, and cognitively draining. People like that deserve to be able to communicate in ways that are natural and comfortable. And it’s important for people close to them to listen to their natural communication. Ignoring someone’s most natural communication it is a rejection of their personhood. It’s important not to do that to people.

It’s also dangerous, because someone who finds AAC cognitively difficult and draining is likely not going to be able to use it all the time. For some people, this can be especially true when it’s particularly important to communicate, or when they’re sick. If you’re responsible for someone and you only know how to listen when they use AAC, that’s dangerous. If there’s another way they communicate, it’s important to develop your ability to understand it. (Or, if you can’t, to find someone who can.)

Similarly, if someone has apraxia or other difficulties controlling their body well enough to point, their physical ability to use AAC is likely to vary. And it’s still important to listen to them when they aren’t able to use it in the ways they sometimes can.

tl;dr Access to AAC is important. It’s not the only thing that’s important, and it’s not a cure. Nonverbal people who use AAC are still nonverbal. Body language and using one’s body to communicate are also important skills. (Not everyone can learn to do this. For people who can, it’s valuable.) It is not a good idea to discourage AAC users from using body language to communicate.

In defense of nonverbal communication

Lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of posts giving parents of nonverbal kids the advice “pretend not to understand your child so that they will be forced to use AAC and communicate in words”.

I think this is a mistake.

I think that if you want to teach someone to communicate, it has to be built on a foundation of listening to them. And that means listening to all of their communication, not just communication that happens in words.

I also think that all of someone’s communication methods are important, and that they all need to be respected. There isn’t one true method of communication. They all matter.

Communicating through body language is useful for all people. People who can talk are allowed to communicate through body language, and actively encouraged to develop the skill of doing so. It’s expected that, when I smile, point to things, frown, or whatever, that people will listen to what I’m communicating. Nonspeaking people deserve the same respect.

People say “communication shouldn’t wait for speech”. I agree with that. And I think it shouldn’t wait for words either. Because words may never come. If you wait for someone to reliably use words to listen to them, you may end up never listening to them. And everyone deserves to be heard.

And even if they will eventually use words and sentences, the things they’re saying *now* still matter. And listening to them is still important.

Presuming competence shouldn’t mean assuming that with the right support, people will eventually base most of their communication on words. Presuming competence should mean assuming that, with the right support, people will choose the means of communication that work best for them. Which may be speech. Or a voice output communication device. Or sign. Or body language. Or pointing to a letter board. Or speech. Or any number of other things. Or any number of combinations of things.

tl;dr Everyone deserves to be listened to. If you want to support someone in learning to communicate, it has to be built on a foundation of listening to them — in whatever form their communication takes. Ignoring one form of communication to force them to learn a different form is not respectful, and probably won’t help.