A communication consultant who travels the globe consulting with schools and speaking about Alternative Augmented Communication (AAC) spoke last night from 7-9 p.m. on Central Michigan University's campus. Lynn Sweeney, who is also a faculty member in the psychology department could have spoken a lot longer despite having been on campus since 7 a.m. in the morning. She cut her power point show short and decided not to show a video when she realized that 9 p.m. was approaching fast.
As a member of the audience I learned more than just variety of communication systems that have the capacity to help nonverbal individuals with autism communicate. Ms. Sweeney did show us slides of the Picture Exchange Communication (PEC) system, the Lite Writer, Big Mack, a bar code scanner and other devices, but her main points dealt with the psychology behind using such devices. When she works as a consultant she advises schools as to purchase a (costly) device or not for a specific child.
"The child has to be ready to communicate," she said, noting that a lot of the readiness has to do with the amount of organization that has occurred in the individual's brain in terms of motor control, etc. Ms. Sweeney emphasized the importance of trust and skilled partners. The greater the skill the communication partner has and the more trust an individual with ASD has in that partner, the better chance that success will be imminent.
Acknowledgement of control issues and the importance of novel approaches is also important. For example, the problem Lynn Sweeney, psychology dept., has with the use of PECs at home is that the items in many of the pictures sent from speech or special ed teachers have a history at home. Using pictures to obtain food items or other things that isn't normally found at home is a major factor to achieving success with Pecs at Home.
Sweeney also made the point that older individuals who grow up without using an alternative communication system grow frustrated. Despite the frustration, they stick to their own methods of achieving what they want which is unfortunate because these methods often are destructive in some way.
"Many of these people are quite bright." she said, noting that Temple Grandin once called nonverbal individuals with autism 'internal thinkers.' Sweeney also said that sometimes the refusal to use a communication systems stems from the desire of the person's fear of being wrong. Learning the system can be hard and mistakes are sometimes made. She said choice to stick to their learned behaviors rather than to opt for a proposed systems is emotional and instinctive as well.
However, Sweeney did make it evident that it is possible to teach an older adult to use a new system. She spoke of how a nonverbal forty-year-old man achieved some independence in the kitchen. The man used a bar code scanner to bake a cake. Sweeney watched him as he scanned a bar codes placed by pictures with a hand held device. The device delivered a verbal instruction and the man would follow it using ingredients and kitchen tools that had been set up for him ahead of time.
My thoughts: I'm aware that the topic of facilitated or augmented communication is controversial. Some people believe that it is actually the communication partner that is using the device instead of the individual with autism. This maybe be the case at times, but I have seen (on film) individuals such as Sue Rubin (Autism is a World) use such devices on their own to effectively communicate.
Lynn Sweeney is also aware of this and works to ensure that an individual's communication partner is trained to make sure that the correct person is using the device appropriately. Ms. Sweeney is a firm believer that if used appropriately, augmented communication devices can be used to achieve at least some degree of independence. Her example was Australian Writer Lucy Blackman. Sweeney said she witnessed Blackman using her device all on her own and that Ms. Blackman "blew her away" so much with the words she wrote that Sweeney felt that instead of teaching as intended, she was the one who was taught.