The AAC Detective: Try Observing These Five Behaviors for Clues


Picture: from the web: Alamy

Picture: from the web: Alamy

“I want you to know that today, in the brief moments when I was quiet, I was just enjoying being with you.”

I want to say that more in 2014.  The beginning of this post is more personal than most, but it’s a new year and a good time to reflect.

I feel like my mind races a lot and I try to think quickly all the time. One of the things I want to try to do more often (I guess a resolution of sorts) is to be more in the moment.

I’ve been focusing more intensely on what my kids are saying but also on their voices and the freckles on Emma’s cute cheeks and her dramatic facial expressions. I’ve been paying more attention to her sense of style and trying to laugh at her I’m-ten-and-I-know-everything attitude instead of getting annoyed. emmablogI’m watching the way Jarrod’s (my fourteen year old) eyes widen when he is going to say something funny or the way he tries not to laugh or smile because he doesn’t want me to know that I’m amusing sometimes.

Jarrod trying not to smile when I'm taking pictures with him.

Jarrod trying not to smile when I’m taking pictures with him.


My friend’s eyes are a darker brown when something is wrong, and she looks pale in contrast to their darkness.  My dog, Reese, has the softest fur right under his face, and when I pet him there, he looks right in my eyes.reeseblogI realize the reason I am “good” at working with children who can’t talk is because I pay attention to everything when I am with them because that’s all I have.  I am an Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) detective and the stakes are high.  I need to figure out what students are trying to say so that I can show them the right words. If I can show them the right words, they give me their attention…forever. I’ve been thinking that I should pay that same kind of attention to everyone, and I have been, and I like it.

As I’ve been thinking about all of this, I thought it might be helpful if I share some of the things I notice when I’m trying to show students the words they want to say using an AAC system. They are things I have observed with more than one child, but they are by no means 100% for every child. These are just my observations over the years, as a speech-language pathologist…A speech language pathologist who has spent many hours looking at nonverbal students and thinking (and sometimes outright asking), “What do you want to say?”  Here is where I look for clues:

1.  All jumping is not created equal.

When a student bounces on his toes, if may be for regulation or out of excitement. Model “happy,” “excited,” “jumping,” “I like this” and watch how the student reacts. If he looks at you or stops to look at the device, show him that word again.

If a student is straight-leg  jumping with flat feet, back off and try to figure out what could be upsetting him. Do something different or back away and let him calm down. If you’ve ever tried to jump with straight legs and flat feet, it hurts your knees. Students who I’ve seen do this are usually agitated, angry, or upset about something.  If you want to model some of the feeling words, the best time is in that moment, but not at the expense of the student’s comfort. Make sure the student doesn’t feel like you’re placing a demand on him. Also, stop if the jumping gets more intense.

2.  Listen and get to know a student’s vocalizations.

Many times a student who is happy or enjoying an activity will vocalize higher pitched and longer duration vowel sounds.
If he is agitated, vocalizations are usually shorter, lower pitched, and harsher.

If a student (or anyone really) swallows hard, where you can see their neck move, it’s usually because they’re afraid.

Model “afraid,” “scared,” “stop” or if you know, show them how to regulate whatever it is that scared them. For example, if it was a loud noise, show them how to say, “too loud” or “quiet.”  If they do this when certain people come close to them, follow whatever procedure you would if the student said to you, “I’m scared of Mrs. Smith.” Swallowing hard when you’re afraid is subconscious and worth noticing.

3. Follow a student’s eyes.

What is she looking at? Model “look,” point, and look at it too.  By doing this, you establish joint attention.  Make comments about what you see and model vocabulary. “That’s a nice poster. It has a DOG AND CAT.”  If she turns to look at something else, model “look” again, point to the new item, and model vocabulary. She’ll figure out that if she wants to know how to talk about something, she can look at it and you’ll help her.

If a student closes his eyes…
He may be tired (and you can try modeling that) or he doesn’t want to see what you’re showing him. Model “stop,” “don’t want,” “later,” or “different.”

4.  If a student is hitting himself…

Pay attention to where he’s hitting. It could mean that part of his body is hurting him. Model “hurt,” “pain,” “help,” and the body part. Also, try modeling “squeeze” and give the student your hand. I’ve had several students put my hand on the back of their neck, on their head or put their hand in mine. Whether it was pain or the need for sensory input, it gives them a communication alternative.

5.  Let students explore vocabulary, and pay attention to their reactions to the words.

If students are exploring the device on their own, some students will make eye contact when they hear the word they wanted to say.

If it seems like a student is just babbling, pay attention and respond to whatever the device says, but when they stop and make eye contact sometimes it means, “That’s what I wanted to say!”

Feel free to add any of your own observations in the comments. Also, for anyone who was/is nonverbal, please share any insights.

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3 Responses to The AAC Detective: Try Observing These Five Behaviors for Clues

  1. Mary Kay says:

    oh my goodness… thank you for letting me into your world so I can understand our world better. Heidi, it is you who I model myself after : ) I’ve learned more from you these last 10 months than I have learned in 20 years from all the SLP’s combined. Expression and tone is just as important as what someone says!

  2. Vicki Clarke says:

    Love this article! When we give ourselves permission to put our data collection pen down, stop pushing forward on our own agenda and just “be” with our kids, that’s when the real “aha” moments occur. Thanks so much for this post 🙂

  3. Kathy says:

    Great article. As a mom, I’m told to model AAC. It’s hard by myself (I’m a single mom). I appreciate you for sharing these insights. I think if more speech therapists followed these practices and hung out in classrooms, assemblies, lunchrooms, the mall, etc. (natural environment) using AAC it would be easier to get kids to use it. The kids could “eavesdrop” and better assist each other. We need more AAC translators out in the world. Thank you for being an inspiration. My son has Angelman Syndrome and will always use AAC, unless the upcoming cures being researched, enable him to speak.

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