Thursday, June 9, 2016

Choose Your Words Wisely

Imagine for a moment that you can't always speak, or at least, not as easily as other people can.  You learn to stay quiet, not speaking unless you have to, conserving energy in case you need to speak about something important, or talk to someone whose presence in your life you value.  You become so good at weighing your words carefully and only saying the important ones out loud that no one suspects you're constantly struggling to make speech work; they assume you're just shy, and you let them believe that, because shyness is an acceptable excuse for your silence - Autism, the real reason spoken words don't always work for you, isn't.

Now imagine that you find a device that can speak for you, allowing you to store common words and phrases for easy access.  Here's the catch: you can only store 1,200 individual words and/or phrases within the device.  Of course, you can type out any words you want - even words that aren't stored in the device - and have them spoken aloud, but a keyboard isn't always handy, and typing on the screen of the device itself is slow and cumbersome.  Which words and phrases do you choose?  How do you sort them?

I can't think of a single person for whom that sort of task would be easy, and I imagine that more than a few people would contemplate quitting, or else putting forth as little effort as possible, after a few short hours trying to complete the task.  I myself, having been faced with just such a situation, have contemplated how easy it would be to just give up on multiple occasions.  If it weren't for the knowledge that I am literally giving myself a secondary voice - one that will be far more reliable than my natural one - I would likely have given up by now.

My advice to anyone who is in the process of setting up an AAC device/app, be it for yourself, a friend, family member, or client, is as follows:

1.  Take your time
I know you're eager to be finished with the whole process of choosing words and finding locations for them, but it is much easier to set up the the app properly the first time than to realize there is a problem with the layout after it is finalized and you and/or the AAC device user have already grown accustomed to it.  A big part of the reason AAC devices work so well once the people using them have gotten used to the button placement is because of motor planning.  People learn where to place their fingers on the screen of an AAC device in the same way people learn the layout of their keyboards.  Moving words and phrases after setting the device up and using it increases the potential number of miss-hits/errors and slows down the process of learning to use the device.

2.  Use core vocabulary
Even if you or the person you are programming the AAC device for are planning to use pre-stored phrases to communicate it is always good to have some core vocabulary available to allow for the formation of novel utterances (phrases that aren't planned out ahead of time).  If, like me, you are working with an app that allows you to create different categories to store your words and phrases in then decide on a number of buttons in each category that you will devote to core vocabulary; fringe vocabulary can be included as well, but it should not take up the majority of the space set aside for individual words.

3.  Use a computer
If you have a computer or laptop of any sort I strongly advise you to use that to plan out the locations of words and phrases in your AAC app.  It's much easier to type out and revise your layout in some sort of word document than it is to do it directly within the app/device.  You can also print out the document when you're finished programming the device so if anything goes wrong and you need the device rebooted or replaced you can easily input the exact same vocabulary you had before without needing to guess at where a certain word or phrase was once stored.

4.  Make corrections
Your first attempt at planning the layout for an AAC category is highly unlikely to be perfect, and that's okay.  You may need to completely rewrite entire categories because you realized they just aren't laid out right; I've done that multiple times, in fact, I only have one category that I am certain I don't need to revise at the moment.  You may also discover a pronunciation error when you're testing your words and phrases (please remember to test your words and phrases before inputting them) and if your app/device doesn't have a feature that enables pronunciation corrections you'll need to rewrite any phrase containing the mispronounced word.

5.  Choose your words wisely
I can't stress this enough: you are choosing what vocabulary you or the person who will be using the device you're programming will be able to access most easily.  The words you choose can determine the level of success the person using the AAC device will have at communicating.

I know this phase of AAC usage isn't easy or fun, but you can get through it, and if you succeed at this step of the process you'll be setting yourself up for future success.

Good luck!

Wednesday, June 8, 2016



Welcome to my secondary blog, Tales of Ravens and Writing Desks, a blog specifically dedicated to posts about my experiences as an Autistic AAC device user.  Some people may already be familiar with me and my writing from my primary blog, Hands In Motion, where I write about a variety of topics related to disability activism and Autism; for those of you who don't know me, allow me to introduce myself here:

My name is Erin Schroeder, as you may have already noticed if you read the 'About Me' section of this blog, and I am an Autistic teenager.  I am an avid disability rights activist, spending most of my free time participating in some type of activism, be it online or offline.  I have also been devoting a significant amount of time recently to programming an AAC app on a Kindle Fire that I purchased to serve as a communication device.  Once I finish the long and arduous task of getting the app properly set up I will begin implementing its use in my daily life.

Now, I'm fairly certain that a few people are reading that last paragraph and tilting their heads in confusion, after all, I couldn't have just implied that I, a person capable of understandable vocal speech, am planning on using an AAC device, could I have?  Yep, that's exactly what I'm saying.  I know that it's uncommon to encounter an AAC user who's capable of speaking in an understandable manner, and it's even less common for such a person to have developed understandable vocal speech before implementing the use of an AAC device, but contrary to popular belief it does happen.  There are a number of reasons that disabled people who are capable of using vocal speech might choose to use an AAC device to supplement or replace their vocal speech; I'll list some of those reasons here:

Selective mutism - Selective mutism is an anxiety-related speech disability which prevents a person from speaking in certain situations.  Selective mutism is not a choice, and any number of factors can influence whether or not a person with selective mutism is capable of speaking at any given time.  For people with selective mutism an AAC device can help ensure that even when speech is inaccessible they are still able to communicate.

Echolalia - Echolalia is the term for when a person repeats words that others have spoken in order to communicate, as a type of stimming, and/or as an involuntary form of speech.  Echolalia can be immediate (ie: repeating words others have said right after hearing them), or delayed (ie: repeating words hours, days, months, or even years after first hearing them).  While echolalia can be very helpful to language development and can serve as a form of communication some individuals find that echolalia either interferes with their ability to carry out conversations or is the only method of vocal communication that they are capable of.  For these people AAC devices can help make conversations smoother and expand upon what they are able to communicate.

Lack of vocal modulation - For some disabled people it can be difficult or impossible to modulate the tone and volume of their vocal speech.  This is an issue that I myself struggle with, and while it is not the main reason for my decision to begin using an AAC device it is something I took into consideration.  While it may not seem like that significant of a communication issue the lack of ability to reliably modulate one's tone and volume can be a major barrier when you are attempting to speak to someone and they simply can't hear what you're saying because you speak in a quiet, low monotone.  The volume of most AAC devices can be easily adjusted, and Bluetooth speakers can be paired with certain AAC devices, particularly those which are not manufactured as dedicated AAC devices, in order to amplify the volume even further.

Stuttering - Stuttering, a speech impediment characterized by pauses in the middle of words and phrases and the repetition of said words and phrases, can significantly slow down conversations.  Some people who stutter may benefit from the use of an AAC device to speed up important conversations.

Reading that list you may notice that I only mentioned one factor that influenced my choice to use an AAC device, that being the lack of tone modulation, which I noted was not the main factor in my decision.  The truth is, I don't have a term that neatly sums up the reason why I find typing and AAC use easier than vocal speech in most situations, I just do.  If you ask me a complex question or an extremely personal question I will be able to type a suitable answer to your question in a few short minutes, but I will struggle to vocally articulate an answer that is more than a few sentences long, if that.  It's not that I have any significant oral motor difficulties that prevent me from speaking for too long, although I do experience more and more difficulty speaking the longer I speak, it's just that I'm able to translate my thoughts into typed words far faster than I am able to translate them into spoken ones.  For some disabled people that's just the way it is; we know that AAC works better for us than spoken language, we simply don't know why.

That introduction lasted a bit longer than I intended it to, so allow me to wrap up this post by saying that in the coming weeks I will begin posting about the process of setting up an AAC device, learning to utilize the device once it is fully set up, and using it in my day-to-day life.  There will likely be an influx of posts in August when I enter my senior year of high school and face all the challenges that come with implementing the use of an AAC device in a mainstream high school classroom, challenges I may very well be tackling alone due to my school's lack of experience in the use of AAC devices by speaking students.  I welcome questions and comments from anyone who chooses to read this blog; hopefully some such questions and comments will inspire blog posts and help keep this blog from going through a silent phase.

Thank you for reading my first post to this blog, and I do hope you continue to read the subsequent posts.