Years ago a brilliant little girl changed the way I viewed AAC. Amber was four years old, preliterate and nonverbal. She came to speech therapy with a AAC device that she carried like a briefcase.
She always had wonderful and clever things to say but one day she stopped me in my tracks. She came to speech with some tootsie rolls that I held onto for her. As we were singing and playing and doing speech-y stuff, she interjected by pressing the word “chalk” (stored on her device with other art supplies; the icon was a picture of a white, cylindrical object against a black background). Immediately after, she pressed the word “let” (stored as a verb with a little family as the icon).
Holy moly. She’s saying “chocolate.”
This gave me incredulous pause. And then it hit me- of course this is how she thinks. This is how language development works! When beginning verbal communicators speak they aren’t referencing icons or graphemes. They move their articulators to produce sounds that form words. Amber was tapping into this same developmental language learning process – just with a different articulator. Instead of moving her lips, jaw and tongue to create sounds and words, Amber moved her finger (incidentally, this inspired my AAC tattoo).
“Chalk let” was likely not the first time she reappropriated words and manipulated sounds to create her message and it definitely was not the last. Over the years, her mother and I collected examples of Amber’s use of programmed sounds and words:
- “Apple saws” for “applesauce”
- When asked about the fireworks on the 4th of July, “color foal”
- “Turn up” for “turnip”
- “No L” for “Noel” (in response to her mother spelling the word and the synthesized speech mispronouncing it as “nole”)
- “Some foggy putting” for “some figgy pudding”
- “Are” with one hand over her eye, pretending to be a pirate
- “Square L” for squirrel
- “Chick fell a” for “Chik Fil-A”
- “Tummy 8” for “tummy ache
I learned from Amber to start listening to the output on my clients’ devices instead of reading or watching them generate language. I need to hear what she’s saying and what she’s hearing.
Now stuff like this happens in the language of neurotypical verbal children. My kids (twin 6 year olds) tell me that they have a “head egg” when their heads hurt. This is because the word “ache” isn’t in their vocabulary yet but the word “egg” is, so they actually hear “head egg” when someone else says it, then their output matches their input. Most parents have similar stories to this. My own parents still laugh at me getting excited to “go to see the rabbits” when in fact we were going to Cedar Rapids.
Beginning AAC communicators have the ability (and right) to develop language using the same processes and strategies and by making the same mistakes. The more I allowed myself to listen to Amber the more I heard what she heard and what she was trying to say. This phenomenon is a clear case for giving beginning communicators access to speech output devices. We all know that there is power in sign language and low-tech systems but letting kids play with sounds will allow children to mirror some natural language development processes.
Excitingly, Amber isn’t completely unique. My colleagues at Bridgeway Academy started hearing similar vocabulary reappropriations from their clients (“water small” for “waterfall,” “draw” for “straw,” “happy feel to” for “Happy Feet 2,” “sleep be” for “sleepy”). One of my students called me “Win see” and another “more on!” My disability awareness and advocate BFF, Robert Rummel-Hudson told me his daughter Schuyler at 13 years old and just started to experiment with swearing used the word “apple” to describe a teacher she didn’t like!
Now, for the sake of clarity and literacy, I tend to first accept the utterance, but then share the proper production of a word, just like we do with invented spelling for beginning writers.
A couple months ago one of my clients asked me to “sing rowboat,” then adding “life is but a tree.” I shared this on Facebook and a colleague in the AAC field (Russell Cross) was curious about how many other people had experienced similar things. The responses from across the globe were overwhelming. Here are a few:
- “Giraffe +ing” for “drafting”
- “Love bye” for “lullabye”
- “Pizza hunt” for “Pizza Hut”
- “Peach therapy” for “speech therapy”
- “Ice see you” for “ICU”
- “3 blonde mouse” for “3 blind mice”
- “”Jacket” for “Jacqui”
- “Bowl” for “bolt”
- “When she’s” for “Wendy’s”
- “Mad Gas Car” for “Madagascar (we’ve seen this one at Bridgeway Academy too!)
- “Alike” for “I like”
- “Me key House” for “Mickey Mouse”
- “Speak well” for “speak whale” (from Finding Nemo)
- “March yellow” for “marshmallow”
- “Bible” for “bubbles” (this was after the team hid the word “bubbles” from the child’s device; he still found a way to communicate his desire and it’s probably a good example for why NOT to hide words- it doesn’t change the fact that someone is interested in something!)
- “Soda” for “Sodor” (where Thomas the Tank Engine lives)
- “Be Lake” for “Blake”
- “You corn” for “unicorn”
- “House come” for “how’s come”
This phenomenon is clearly not isolated to a few kids. Even some literate adults report doing similar things (“off ten” for “often” or “touch e” for “touchy”). These examples give tangible rationale for giving preliterate children robust vocabularies, speech output and most importantly, presumed competence!
Here’s a bonus video of a fabulous girl named Katya saying “ah chew” to pretend to sneeze