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What is Real Communication?

Posted Nov 15, 2021 - 12:43pm

By Lance McLemore, PRC-Saltillo Blogger

At this point, I think I’ve lost track of all the things I’ve written. I’ll probably touch on something I’ve written about before, but it’s probably not exactly the same. Some things are important enough to be repeated. What is real communication? For me, it is easier to try to define or describe it apophatically.

Testing is not communication. I’ve seen and heard of many examples of this kind of so-called communication. What color is this? What shape is this? What is the day of the week? I have never met anyone, no average person anyway, who talks like this. The communication of the average person is not an endless series of tedious unimaginative questions, and nor is it answering those kinds of questions.  They don’t constantly try to measure the intelligence and language of their family and friends. Most of us are very well aware when we’re being tested, and we don’t like it. Believe me when I say that you’re not as sneaky and clever as you think you are. It’s patronizing and condescending. We can see that you don’t talk to other people like that. If someone talked to you like that, you would be annoyed, puzzled, and you would probably think they were crazy.

Coerced communication is not real communication. About two years ago I visited a high school. I saw an autistic girl sitting at a table with an aid sitting next to her. The aid would make a comment or ask a question, but the girl wouldn’t respond.  I assume the aid tried to anticipate what she wanted to say, and then he prompted her to say what he thought she wanted to say. I think it’s the most bizarre interaction I’ve ever seen. It’s as if he was using her to talk to himself. There was really no need for her to even be there, because there was no real communication taking place. He might as well have just been sitting there talking to himself on the device. She was being used as a puppet. There are many variations to this type of interaction, and they might be more subtle. You cannot possibly know what we’re thinking and what we want to say. Teach us to speak our own thoughts, and don’t use us as some kind of blank projection screen.

Requesting is communication only at a very basic level. I’ve seen a slide in a PowerPoint presentation that lists all the different functions of communication. Requesting is one of many different functions, but so many AAC users are stuck on it. When I think about all the reasons I communicate, requesting is way down at the bottom of my list. I use my AAC device much more often to comment, ask questions, talk about my feelings, convey information or opinions, argue, joke, be insufferably obnoxious, etc. The average person also uses language in an incredibly varied way. Just because someone can’t speak, it doesn’t mean that they don’t need language for the same reasons. Why be satisfied that an AAC user can communicate just to take care of basic needs? Is that enough to allow them to live a full independent life?  Why not aim higher?

What would I consider to be real communication? I suppose to put it simply, real communication is that communication that everyone has every day all the time without thinking about it. I sometimes go to a grocery store that’s about 30 minutes from my house. The last time I went there, I was at the cash register checking out. The cashier asked me about my communication device. I keep it on a strap over my shoulder. Apparently, she had seen me a few times and had wondered what it was. I sat it on the counter and turned it on and started explaining. I had to explain that I could hear and understand everything she said. I’m still amused by the assumptions people make about me. It was just a normal conversation. She wasn’t testing me. I wasn’t being coerced in any way. Neither of us had any particular agenda. That’s what I wish all AAC users could have. Obviously, I know everyone is different, and not everyone will have that experience. However, they should get as much of that as they can. It seems quite simple to me. We want what most other people have and take for granted: a reciprocal interaction where the speaking person sees us and treats us as equals.

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