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AAC in a Group Setting

Posted Feb 9, 2022 - 10:37am

By His Royal Highness Lance McLemore, PRC-Saltillo Blogger

I’m often asked the following question: what is the greatest challenge you face as an AAC user? There are many things that makes AAC difficult. There is one thing that I still struggle with after all these years: using an AAC device with multiple communication partners. It’s probably safe to assume that most AAC users have trouble with it too.

It’s probably not a surprise that a group setting would be a challenging situation for an AAC user. Most AAC users are significantly slower than their speaking counterparts. I consider myself to be a fast communicator, but even I’m much slower than a speaking person. In a group setting with multiple speaking persons, the pace is quite fast. As soon as one person stops talking, another person quickly jumps in to continue. One after another the conversation is passed and carried along. The topic often changes; one remark inspires an association in someone’s mind leading to a change in topic. As a result, the AAC user tends to get pushed to the side and left behind. In most cases this is not malicious, but the result is the same. It’s not possible for an AAC user to participate in a conversation in the usual way.

When I’m in a group of people, it usually goes the same way. I hear something interesting, and I want to comment or ask a question. Then often before I can even wake up my device and press any key, what I want to say is no longer relevant; the topic might have even completely changed before I can get out a single word. If I choose to go ahead and say what I was thinking, I feel like a jerk, because I’m forcing them to return to something they’ve already finished talking about. The conversation is like a tug-of-war: they go forward, and then I pull them back. Another problem I have is that I was taught that it was rude to interrupt people when they’re talking. Generally, I think that’s a good rule, but it doesn’t work so well for an AAC user. When talking to multiple communication partners, it’s very difficult to get the timing just right so you jump in during a pause. If I want to say something, I often have no choice but to interrupt. That’s not something I like to do, but I don’t know how to avoid it. If we’re not willing to be a little rude, then we might not be able to say anything.

This kind of situation has arisen many times over the years, so as a result, I prefer to avoid groups of people. I’ve had so many bad experiences, and I don’t like to subject myself to it needlessly. I know it’s not the best solution, and I probably miss out on a lot because of it. I’m thinking about a particular group of people. I’ll try to keep details to a minimum, because I don’t want any hard feelings. This group I’m thinking of is full of nice people. They’re funny, quirky, and interesting. I enjoy listening to what they have to say, but listening is usually the extent of my involvement. Most of the people in this group have similar jobs, and many of them have worked together. Most of them have interests that are very different from mine. To sum it up, this group has a large core of people with similar jobs, similar interests, and a shared history that long preceded my entry. It’s very difficult for an outsider to break through that. When I have met up with this group, I find it quite difficult to get involved in the conversation. They often talk about things that I don’t know anything about, and I don’t want to abruptly pull them in a completely different direction. Getting the timing right is very difficult. The conversation moves too quickly for me to say much of anything. Within half an hour I start thinking to myself, “why did I bother to come here? It’s going the same way it’s gone every other time.” I usually force myself to stay and try to hide how sad, small, defeated, and invisible I feel. Then at some point, I get the urge to escape. My presence feels superfluous at best or intrusive at the worst. This is not an isolated example. It’s happened many times. It even happens when there’s just me and two other people. Just one extra person can throw me off balance.

I usually don’t complain when this kind of situation comes up. I suppose it’s just part of my personality; I don’t like to complain. Things might improve if I was more open about the frustrations I feel. It would probably help a lot if we AAC users were more comfortable advocating for our needs in situations like that. If we could explain that we need more time to respond, or if we had some way to signal that we had thoughts to share, then maybe we wouldn’t be left behind. Perhaps carrier phrases could be useful. A button could be preprogrammed with a message like, “I have something to say about that, or please wait while I type a message.” It’s necessary for us to find ways of slowing down the pace of the conversation. This is one area where parents, friends, teachers, SLP’s, etc. really need to help us gain more confidence and aptitude. Not all communication is one-to-one, so we need to be comfortable with it. I would also like communication partners to be more aware of the difficulties AAC users face in these situations. It could help if they occasionally ask us if we have any thoughts about something that was said. They should try to be understanding if our timing is off or if we want to go back to something previously discussed. However, I think the onus is really on AAC users to advocate for what they need. Most of the people we will interact with in our lives have never met an AAC user; they don’t automatically know what they should and shouldn’t do; they don’t understand what our needs are. We cannot take for granted that they understand anything about AAC or what we need. Our default assumption should be that they know nothing, and it’s up to us to inform them, stand up for ourselves, and tell them what we need.

I feel a little like a hypocrite, because this is something I still struggle with. I need to take my own advice. I have at least a vague idea of what I can do to improve my own situation, but applying it is not so easy. I should tell the group of people I mentioned earlier what I’ve been going through, what makes it difficult to communicate in that situation, and offer suggestions on what they can do to make it easier. I still find it difficult asking for accommodations. I don’t like the idea of people seeing me as a nuisance who’s asking for special treatment. I’m sure there are many AAC users who understand what I’m going through. Maybe we would all benefit from being less agreeable and a little more demanding. There’s an aphorism that’s applicable here: the squeaky wheel gets the grease.  

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Communicators In Action   -    aac, communication, group, language, prc, saltillo, autism


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