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The Great Divide

Posted Feb 2, 2022 - 11:40am

By: Brittany Toney, MA, CCC-SLP, PRC-Saltillo Regional Consultant

Behavior. A hot button issue in the field of AAC and speech-language pathology. An SLP myself, that worked in an ABA center for most of my career, I have often wondered why it is such a tumultuous topic. I highly respect my BCBA colleagues, and although we don’t always agree on the best way to approach treatment for a student who uses AAC, we have the same goal in mind: functional and independent communication. Not to mention the fact that I have learned so much from them over the years. Now, I am not here to solve this long-standing divide between BCBAs and SLPs, but what I am here to do is give you some insight into a few topics and questions that teams often have about behavior and AAC when I am consulting with them.

Question/Concern 1: My student often throws their device, so I am worried about it getting damaged. What should we do so this doesn’t happen?

Legitimate concern! But how do we prevent Johnny from throwing his device after every utterance? I will tell you what not to do…do NOT remove the device from his desk. Then he will only begin to expect this each time he says something, and it will become a game. Trust me. First, consider why Johnny might be throwing his device. Is he trying to escape from a task you have given him? Is he trying to get attention? Does he like the way it feels when he throws something heavy? Whatever the reason or FUNCTION of his behavior, consider these alternatives rather than completely removing the device:

  1. Try a clamp-on table mount. The student’s device attaches to the mount so it can stay on his desk, and he won’t be able to throw it. Ask your local PRC-Saltillo consultant if this is an option for your student, or how to get one covered by insurance.
  2. Insurance won’t cover a clamp-on mount? Consider a cheaper option such as a child safety strap lock or latch. One side attaches to the desk, while the strap loops through the stand on the device and attaches to the lock mechanism. This option works for many devices and won’t allow the student to throw the device.
  3. Have a back-up at the ready. Johnny throws his device; you whip out a low-tech board or iPad with his communication app and hold it so he can’t throw it. Problem solved.

Question/Concern 2: My student constantly turns off her device during group speech sessions. Is there a setting on the device to prevent her from doing this?

Again, legitimate concern, but first, let’s think about WHY a student might be doing this before we start looking at changing a setting on the device. Are they trying to get attention from you or someone else? Have they been forced to use their device so much so that they don’t want to use it in certain situations? Maybe they simply don’t want to talk today, and that is ok!! When you don’t want to talk, you simply turn your voice off. An AAC user can do this too by turning off her device. Hint: the same is true if the student constantly changes the volume on their device. Whisper or yell? So can they. Whatever the reason, here are some ideas:

  1. Accept she doesn’t want to talk today. Period.
  2. If the student allows, turn her device back on and model on her device without expecting her to say anything. If she won’t allow you to model on her device, or shuts it off again, model on a different device or low-tech board. This way, you can still show her where some key words are when she is ready to talk again.
  3. Have a peer model on a device or low-tech board. Sometimes removing you from the situation helps tremendously.

Question/Concern 3: My student selects one icon repeatedly on his device and won’t stop. Is there a way to stop her from doing this?

Been there, and typically, it was a particular letter or number that the student would perseverate on. I am going to sound like a broken record, but let’s consider the function of the behavior here. Do they like the way that icon sounds? Are they trying to get your attention? Are they repeatedly hitting that icon so you get frustrated and take the device away? Here are some ideas to help you tackle your perseverative tapper:  

  1. Find a toy or item that replaces the student’s desire to repeatedly tap the same icon on their device, all the while fulfilling their need to hear the same sound over and over again. Does your student love to hit a specific number or letter on their device? Find them a toy that has audio output that fulfills the same goal.
  2. Set a timer. Allow the student to explore his device for a given amount of time, and then tell him it is time for whatever activity you have planned.
  3. Is this behavior impacting other students in the classroom? Rather than take the device away or turn it off, which will likely cause a more severe behavior, try headphones for the student. If the student will tolerate headphones, hook them up to his device and allow him to explore his device while wearing headphones. Who knows? Maybe he will find a word on the device you didn’t know he knew.

Question/Concern 4: My student is very possessive of her device and won’t allow me to touch it to provide a model or make changes. What do you suggest?

This one can be tricky, as there are likely many reasons behind why the student is so possessive of her device. Let’s consider them. Is she worried you will make changes to her device that she doesn’t like? Does she want to lead the session rather than allowing you to? After all, the device is her voice, so she should feel some amount of possession over it. Here are some ways you can still model for your student, or make changes to it, while still respecting her boundaries:

  1. If the goal is modeling, model on another device or a low-tech board. Even if the pathway is not the same, your student will still get the idea and be exposed to words in a way similar to how she communicates.
  2. If the goal is to modify a setting or vocabulary on the student’s device, let her watch you and set a timer. Again, with the timer, I know. If the student knows you will only be touching her device for a set amount of time, and can watch you do it, she is more likely to give up control for a minute or two.

I hope this gives you some ideas for how to combat these tricky situations when it involves behavior and AAC. Behavior strategies should not go out the window simply because the student has a communication device. Also, if you are really stumped, call up the BCBA in your district or clinic. Chances are they might have some ideas you haven’t thought of so we can get back to focusing on communication rather than the behavior.


Beth Christensen
Feb 02, 2022 - 12:41pm

great ideas. The behavioral input is one often overlooked. These are bits of advice I share with teachers, aides and parents. Please consider blogging about how to approach the BCBA/RBT who uses the device in a more unorthodox way. Words rather than lang.

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