Monday, January 19, 2015

If You Give An AAC User A Large Vocabulary . . .

A few weeks ago, Maya accurately (and surprisingly) used the word "cubicle" during speech therapy. There was a character hiding in a poster, and the expectation was that she would say "behind the desk" . . . but instead she said (via Mini, her talker) "behind cubicle." It seemed too specific to be accidental (she has several thousand words in her device, and she picked cubicle) . . . but no one could remember even teaching her the word cubicle. Some probing the next day revealed that, oh yes, it was a deliberate selection (that story is here).

When a 6 year old who can't speak correctly uses the word cubicle, adults pay attention. When an AAC user uses sophisticated, appropriate vocabulary, it is a strong reminder that not being able to speak isn't indicative of decreased cognitive functioning. Sometimes, the best way that we can help the AAC users in our lives (whether they are your family members or children on your caseload) advocate for themselves is to make sure that they have a robust, colorful, extensive vocabulary. And there are at least three important reasons for this, as far as I can tell:

1. It's more motivating to use exciting words. Maya wasn't motivated to talk about which items were big and which were small when presented with a field of items . . . but she was interested in jumping in when we added giant, huge, enormous, tiny, and some others.

2.  A large vocabulary provides the user with a better likelihood of being able to say exactly what they want to say. A young AAC user could see a school bus drive by and think "That bus shines like the golden sun, roars like a lion, and speeds by like a racecar" . . . but without a large vocabulary, he may only be able to say "Bus yellow loud fast." (And honestly, I'm not sure I would even try to share my complicated thoughts if I could only produce "bus yellow loud fast.")

3. As mentioned above, communication partners are influenced by what they hear. If an AAC user is relegated to only using simple words, then their thoughts sound simple, no matter how amazing they might actually be. If teachers, therapists, and family are only hearing simple words, there is a subconscious lowering of the bar. A child who can say gigantic instead of big sounds like someone who needs more words, more opportunities, more conversation.

It's a cycle, right?

If an AAC user is given a lot of words, they can use a lot of words, which causes others to raise their expectations and presume competence . . . and then those communication partners will program more words.

The more I thought about this cycle, the more it felt exactly like one of those "If You Give A Mouse A Cookie" children's books . . . so I made an AAC themed book that follows that pattern. 

If you're interested in printing and sharing, it can be downloaded here.

(click to enlarge pictures)

For another great story about presuming competence and programming exciting words, check this out.

If you're interested in thesaurus style printable books to teach some interesting synonyms, this blogger has created some (one is free, the rest are for sale). If you have time to create some of your own, all you need is some time with and some clipart. (And if you do that, please email them to me! Not kidding.)


  1. Loved, admored, admired, respected, appreciated, liked, am enthused and delighted about, was engaged in and thoroughly enjoyed this treasure of a message. Thanks for this, Dana!

  2. Inspiring!Thanks for sharing!!

  3. The thing is with my daughter who is 5 and has non verbal autism and uses SFY, we gave her a big vocab and modeled it, but she only uses the basic familiar words. "big" "small" "loud" This makes me sad.

  4. My suggestion - include the following on just one page: ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ - My son then combines these 26 letters (he prefers QWERTY order) into an unlimited vocabulary. Good word prediction software at least doubles his speed.

  5. Arthur, I agree that all AAC should contain a QWERTY keyboard. However, many users (including my daughter) aren't able to spell their thoughts yet, which is why programming a huge vocabulary is important!

    Anonymous, don't feel badly. If you show an elephant to a five year old and ask them to describe it, "big" is probably going to be a more common response than "enormous." I would (and do) just keep modeling synonyms so that the saucy exciting words are getting used, and eventually the user will pick them, too.

  6. Thank you for your advice Dana. I know Maya isnt that much older.

  7. We changed my 8yo daughter's AAC vocabulary from a phrase based system to a word based one over the past several months. Initially I got a lot of push back from the school staff saying it was "too much" (although it's a 28 button design). They wanted to hide the words and only add them as she learned them. The problem is you can't learn them when they are hidden. Ironically since then the school has asked me to add X, Y and Z words. Now what would they have done if I'd agreed to hide all those words in the first place? Right?! I think they're coming around and realizing that we really need all these words. Thanks for getting the word out.

  8. Go Maya! Our situation is a bit different - access via Eye Gaze is exhausting. Too many words means too many actions required to communicate. Which brings us back to the world of core language. It may not be elaborate but our focus for now is on being able to direct his own care and being able to tell us if someone isn't treating him appropriately. Different challenges bring different goals.

  9. I loved reading this! When our son got his first device no one had a clue what to do with it...I always hate to think if only's. I do get so excited when I see and hear and read about such wonderful uses and successes with these devises. It gives me hope to realize there are people who know what they are doing and children being helped and communicating everyday!

  10. This is great and a very good reminder. My son is using Dynavox Compass and his school SLP (that is who we got it through) had a lot of things locked out to him. She went to a workshop (on her own which I thought was fantastic!) and after talking with the Dynavox rep, realized that Owen needs to be able to use a lot more than what he had. Now he is trying to pull together complete sentences within just a few days. I'm over the moon!

  11. More AAC words means more effective communication. I believe this is a basic human right.

  12. I loved reading this Dana!! I just wanted to let you know that I sent you an e-mail ... I thought I should let you know just in case it went into your junk mail!

    Neetu from Cinnamon's Synonyms

  13. I think this is true even for kids that do not use a device to communicate.

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