An AAC social experiment

I’m always game for a new challenge, especially if it will improve AAC skills. The conversations I have with Jess are good when we are on the move, however, our day to day life is rather mundane and predictable. The end result is we look at each other knowing what is to be said next. I’m not saying that we read each other’s minds but I find that I repeat myself:

  • Please wash your hands & then set the table.
  • Please put your things away.
  • Please get ready for bed and then we can watch some TV. 

Hmm, my examples sound so much more polite in print than when I say them.

To be honest, predictable language has more to do with the husband than it does Jessie. After nearly 28 years of marriage, we’ve fallen into the trap of knowing looks.  I hate to admit that as a family unit, we all suffer from “implied conversation”. I think we are in need of a reboot.

Speak for Yourself is doing a social experiment where we maintain a dedicated modeling schedule. We are to carve out 15 minutes a day, for two weeks where we model language on our AAC devices. For us, the best time for uninterrupted modeling is first thing in the morning, from breakfast till Jess’s ride arrives.  The next best time to catch conversation is before, during and after dinner when we are all together.

What I’m going to share next really doesn’t have much to do with the “social experiment”, but rather an ah-ha moment. There’s a unique feature on the Speak for Yourself app called Hold that Thought. Its purpose is to save the phrase or sentence you were building so you can stop and answer a question. As we all know, conversations aren’t always linear, we all subject hop. Jess uses this feature more for monologuing than for the intended purpose. I, on the other hand, repeat myself every morning. These aren’t necessarily stock phrases that I want to add to the Talker but for the full effect, I want this spoken quickly, with authority.

On second thought, I could add phrases for the husband?

  • How was your day?
  • Anything new happen at work?
  • Honey, would you please pick up a bottle of wine?

Well, maybe the last one should be a pre-programmed phrase, but you get the idea.  There’s more than one way to use Hold that Thought. Actually, it was intended for this use, but I’m realizing it can be handy around the house.

This isn’t modeling language as the experiment intended, but the more I use SFY with Jess, the more she has to say. It’s a matter of finding the right icebreakers. 

We have some uninterrupted time right now. “All I have to do” is find something that is interesting to talk about it. Easier said than done. Jess doesn’t care much about my weeding, doing laundry or running errands, but I did take Roxy on a hike. I think I will show Jess the video of Roxy running as fast as she can to get this conversation started and we will just wing it from there.

Roxy running “as fast as she can”

AAC… make it a party game

img_2708The last thing Jess wanted to do was endure yet another dinner party. She didn’t have to voice her displeasure, I could read her body language. As far as she is concerned, these events are all the same. Everyone talks, she listens and the topics don’t interest her.  However, this time, the tables were turned.

When each couple was given an AAC device, loaded with the app Speak for Yourself, her whole demeanor changed.  Jess went from slumping in her chair, to sitting bolt upright.  The playing field was now leveled and she was ready to get this party started.

Since October is AAC awareness month, my plan was to show our guests how Jess’s Talker worked. Besides understanding what it takes to use a device, my hope is that they share this experience with another person (if more, they get extra credit). Typically, when people see Jess with a computer, they assume it’s “just” a game and she is overindulged. I want to change this. I want people to realize that this is her voice.

After giving our guests a quick overview, I started with a simple question.

I started with Jess and asked, what did she want for dessert?

She replied, “ice cream” with “sprinkles”.

Ice cream has always been an ice breaker and this was no exception.

Everyone then asked where to find the words.

After having hands on experience with the AAC device, the group quickly realized, while this was easy to use, they had difficulty remembering word location. I assured them that this improves with practice. Just like they can access a keyboard, learning the motor planning for an AAC device is no different.

The question that got me thinking the most was, “I don’t need to use a device to speak to Jess, because I can talk to her”.  True, but people like to be spoken to in their own language and Jess is no exception.  Besides, this is one party game she liked!

ps- we could have started with Jess’s first word, exceptional, but I didn’t want to make this game too hard for our guests 🙂












Getting to know her…

IMG_8242We’ve gone to bed. All is quiet. Moments later we hear a burst of laughter. Then it erupts into a deep belly laugh. She is now hysterical.

I’ve just gotten myself warm and toasty in bed and don’t want to get up, but my curiosity has gotten the best of me. While wrapping myself in a blanket, I tip toe into Jess’s room to see what all the ruckus is about. She was watching Three’s Company. She looked at me as if to say “Mom, you’ve been holding out on me, this is good stuff!”. The following night, the same thing happened except this time she was watching Newhart.

cinderella-the-fashion-transformation-of-history-s-favorite-party-dress-79bf7e0d-0bbf-4c3e-a26f-72fd965dfd1c-jpeg-296446Week 8 of the AACtion plan had asked us to be more noun specific so they have the ability to say the name of things that they enjoy. Of course, when Jess was younger this would have been easy. Jess was enthralled with Big Bird, Chloe and Elmo and her favorite book was The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig. Many years later her interests are more sophisticated. She likes the story telling in Seabiscuit and she’s enamored with the visual of the recent Cinderella movie. It’s the dress. It’s beautiful and glitters.

Whenever I’m at the cross road of “I don’t know and clueless”, all I need to do is observe. The answers will appear as they did the other night.  This morning I added several new(old) TV shows and asked her what her favorite was. My guess was Three’s Company, but I was wrong, it’s Newhart. This is why it is important to have choices. Having choices is very motivating.

As we add words, her thoughts expand. The more fluent I am with SFY, the better communication partner I become. There are things Jess is always asking about; visiting her favorite friend, going to the movies and what she wants to eat. Her phrases aren’t long, but she is expanding her thoughts.  A large vocabulary allows you to speak in color.  Cinderella’s dress isn’t just blue, it’s Cornflower blue!

It’s obvious now, but I didn’t realize that the more Jess is able to express, the better I get to know her. Being able to connect is what makes communication so powerful.

First date

Her story…

If we were going to get to the restaurant on time, she’d have to get dressed in a hurry.  What to wear?  She chose a dress, but it was too fancy. Jess settled on a pretty new top and her nicest jeans.  Before leaving the house, she put on her lip gloss, her favorite necklace and off she went.

His story…

He was nervous to meet her. When she walked in, he just stared and turned red. His expression said it all.

IMG_8051Her story…

I’m not sure if she was excited to meet another SFY user, or if it was because she was meeting a boy.  When he spoke, she gave him her full attention.

His story…

He talked to her using his AAC device and they giggled a lot. They found shared interests. He liked the fact she likes movies. He was a bit shy, but he smiled a lot. This evening was going good and he knew it.

At the time we arranged to meet for dinner, it never occurred to me that this would end up being a date.  We mom’s chaperoned and our matchmaking SLP was with us too. Typically, dinner lasts about an hour, but this went on for nearly two before calling it a night.

She has Angelman’s Syndrome, he is in the autistic spectrum. Where the world may see them as “different”, they saw each other as a person of interest and we  saw young adults who were enjoying a night out.

IMG_7979When the evening came to a close, we all knew that we’d be meeting again.

They were happy to have their picture taken. He put his arms around her and they both beamed.

Jess has his name programmed into her talker.  She’s already asked about him. And it begins…


Practice makes perfect

IMG_7937The following story is family lore.  After my Mom accepted my father’s proposal, he then asked her
“how many kids do you want?” Her reply, “six”. Dad then said, “I should have asked you that first”.

This is how I felt when I was told that the Learning to Speak AACtion plan was a 12-week program.  There was no doubt that I would participate, but it sounded overwhelming, I’m a horrible student and I have fears.

The first two weeks of the plan were easy, however, by the third week, I realized that I was only retaining words in my short-term memory.  There were a few words that I consistently missed and this rattled me. It was obvious I needed to do something different, or I wouldn’t keep up with the cumulative effect of the program. My fears were being realized.

Everything changed on the fourth week. I was playing with the words when something clicked.  I found it was more meaningful to remember if they were put in a longer sentence.  I don’t expect Jess to build these sentences, however, they will make it possible for me to model one word beyond what she is able to say.

Every morning I review the words from the previous weeks before practicing sentences. Like a pangram, I build the sentences using the words in each list.

These are what I’ve come up with for the 5th week:

  • I put on my socks and you take them off
  • I know you can take me to the top of the mountain
  • Sit down and close your eyes.
  • We will open our eyes together.
  • If I can do it my myself then you can do it yourself.
  • Please carry that here and put it next to that toy.
  • Did you know that I like to go outside

What makes this fun is that this system approach is actually working.  It’s probably stating the obvious, but It’s no fun when you suck.

Jess listens as I model and I am hearing her using the new words. (these are new words to me, she’s had them opened for quite some time, I just wasn’t modeling them).

I hope the adage is true, practice makes perfect.  I’m not so sure about ever being perfect, but we will be much improved.









Model, model, model…

IMG_7874The other night I had a dream. I was watching myself have a conversation with Jess. We were using our talkers. My fingers were tapping without hesitation and I wasn’t using the search feature. I was a rock star! The last sentence I recall saying was, “I don’t need help” and then I woke up.  Hopefully this is a premonition as to what is to come.

Whenever I start tapping on the talker, Jess gets a certain glint in her eye and immediately picks up hers. It must feel good to have someone speak your language.

You don’t have to be the best modeler to have impact, you don’t even have to be an SLP, you just have to be a communication partner.

Where Jess prefers the “miss hit method” while searching for a word, I tend to hover over them. Kind of like when I’m looking for an item at the market and it is right in front of me. Even though our styles are different, I’m thinking her way is better. I’m watching her learn from mistakes, whereas you don’t learn much when you freeze. It’s true, he who hesitates is lost.

Hmm, I wonder, who is the modeler?

we have been modeling, time to clean the screen

we have been modeling, time to clean the screen


Under pressure


Roxy listens to everything Jess says!

Siri and I are not friends. She never listens to me.  If I don’t ask my question quickly, she presumes then provides an answer that isn’t even close to what I was looking for.  While I struggle to get her to respond correctly, the husband listens with amusement.  He has a good working relationship with Siri. He is more succinct. They get along well.

While working on the AACtion plan, I found it pretty straight forward. No problem remembering the words. Easy peasy to incorporate them with our vocabulary. However, this morning when it came time to test myself, my mind went blank, I froze and had to use the search button more than once (twice to be specific) for words that I had used only moments earlier.  It seems whenever I find myself under pressure, it’s hard to find my words. Doesn’t matter if I’m being verbal, or using Speak for Yourself. I’ve noticed this happening to Jess too.

Today I read a post that said we need to model/ prompt 20x an hour. We are woefully not even close to this amount (this is another goal to shoot for).  Focusing on modeling these last two weeks has doubled my speed and Jess has increased her usage. Just as important, Jess has raised her level of engagement.  I love seeing her go off into another room and search for words. She knows the only way to learn is by practicing. Learning language is never ending and this is a good thing!

Jess’s device is always in reach. The AACtion plan made us realize that we need to have our devices out more.  It’s really quite a sight at dinner time. Where most families need to put devices away, ours are all out on the table and we are talking!


Why Jess chose Speak for Yourself



Preparing for an AAC Big Year!

IMG_7256A Big Year is an informal competition based on the honor system among birders.  The person that sees, or hears the most birds gets to hold the title.  I’m declaring this be an AAC Big Year!  Of course, this is not in any way, shape or form a competition with another user. The focus is to achieve our personal best.

To kick off our year, we are using this AACtion plan. The theory is, if we improve the communication partners modeling skills, the AAC user’s success rate will increase as well.  This is not just a theory, after only a few days on the AACtion plan, we  are already  hearing results!  Yesterday, while on an errand run, Jess used some of the target words. How encouraging!

When introducing new vocabulary, Jess and I first sit together.  It doesn’t take much to overwhelm her when working/modeling one on one.  I get the “oh mother” sideways glance, a big sigh and then she exits stage left.  Jess is like that horse you lead to water, learning can’t be forced.

Jess often sits on the other side of our double fireplace to listen to conversations in the connecting room

Jess often sits on the other side of our double fireplace to listen to conversations in the connecting room

I’m finding it is just as effective to go into immersion mode while she is in ear shot.  I didn’t realize my using SFY to talk to the dog, the cat, the husband, had such impact?  Up until now, I thought Jess suffered from mommy deafness.  Who knew that you can model from across the room?  Sure I suspected it all along, but not until now did I realize one of her special gifts was eavesdropping!

Jess is an efficient AAC user, but I have not stretched her to elaborate on her thoughts. This is because I didn’t know how.   Jess’s style of talking has gotten her by at home, but doesn’t work with people who don’t know her, much less those who have never seen an AAC device..

The harsh reality is, if I don’t speak SFY,  Jess will have no one to practice with.  Sadly, in three years, only twice has she been with other AAC users.  The first time was when we were at a picnic for Angelman Syndrome families (there were only two other devices and no low tech AAC’s were in sight).  The other time was at a SFY workshop and EVERYONE had their device. Oh what a perfect world it would be if we could meet  AAC users on a regular basis… I’m putting this out to the universe and adding it to my wish list.

I’m convinced that Jess’s level of communication will improve as I increase my SFY usage. The realization has hit me that when we both go out that I should use a device too.  I need to model outside of the home when speaking to people we don’t know.  Unless I’m able to do this, how can I expect her to?  Since she is no longer in school, this is the most logical path.  Not only does Jess have to learn how to hold a conversation with people outside our immediate family, but we need to pave the way for other AAC users that follow.

On a side note, Dad gave Jess a puzzle over Christmas. He thought it was something they could do together. I LOVE this idea, however, the puzzle is too difficult for her fine motor abilities.  Of course, we’ve tried playing with puzzles over the years, but Jess was not able to tell up from down, lacked spacial awareness and was not successful. In the early years, there wasn’t a puzzle easy enough.

Just because you fail, doesn’t mean you stop trying.  For now, I put the ambitious 300 piece puzzle aside  (chosen because it had a pretty picture) and instead we are working on a 24 piece wooden puzzle. We are experiencing success!  I’m witnessing how far Jess has come. Because Jess has been using SFY, her fine motor and attention span have improved exponentially!  While I’m teaching her the skills to work on a puzzle (find the corners, straight lines, color matching), this is also giving us more language to talk about and this comes right back to the AACtion plan.

Whodathunk that a lesson plan would be a catalyst for so many changes?  This project has increased her word usage, we are talking more AAC as a family (all devices are on the table during breakfast and dinner) and it has given us a jumping off point to expand our conversations. I repeat, we are seeing benefits after only a few days! This is just brilliant!  Why has this not been done before? There have been core word monthly lists shared, but practicing words without a plan wasn’t very successful for us. It lacked meaning for someone like me that needs structure and is out of their element.

Unless you are able to practice words in a purposeful and meaningful way, it’s difficult to remember the motor plan.  Take heart new and old #speakingAAC users, this system works no matter what AAC program you use.

Go AAC Big or go home… I’m already home, so I have no excuse, I’m going big!

I do declare, this IS going to be a BIG AAC YEAR!

Never underestimate the power of a list!

IMG_7455As I said, I don’t do resolutions, I make lists. I’ve found they are easier to manage and the success rate is higher.  The highest priority on my list this year was to increase my fluency with Jess’s AAC app Speak for Yourself. Yes, I use it every day, but because it isn’t my first language (like it is Jessie’s), she knows it better than I do.

The thing is, I’m lazy.  When I took piano lessons. I could play by ear and didn’t feel the need to practice, however, at one point, not having a foundation caught up to me and I never improved. Even though Jess has not plateaued with SFY,  I have.

Last night, SFY posted an AACaction plan. Every week, a list of words will be announced to learn (and a lesson plan will be provided).  Even though this first list was easy for me, I’m ashamed to admit that there were a couple of words that I don’t model often and had to search for them.

Repetition is what ingrains motor planning. When motor planning is humming along, you don’t have to think where the words are, your fingers know. Jess can use SFY upside down and sideways. She’s not just learned the motor plan one way, she’s learned them four!  If I broaden my abilities, I know she will too.   It’s shameful that I can’t keep up with her.

I’m not sure if Jess’s style of talking is because she was an older user (21) when she started with SFY,  if she finds succinct phrases more efficient, of it it’s because I have dropped the ball.  What I do know is that I need this boot camp to kick me in the butt. My goal is to improve my own skills so I can encourage her to broaden her sentences.  Even though I know what she is saying, people that don’t know her need more information.

Whether you are just starting out with SFY (or any AAC system for that matter), or if you have been using an AAC device for a few years, this action plan will improve your skills. The key to being a successful AAC teacher is to model, model, model, however, you first must be able to speak the language.

* While I am doing this AAC action plan, I will be opting out of the drawing for the $400 Amazon gift card.  Yes, there is a drawing and a prize for those that play along.

*I’ve used the word “shameful” several times.  Shaming should not always have a bad connotation. It is purposeful to admit your shortcomings so you can work on them.



This is our 6:30am look

This morning, after using her talker to tell me what she wanted for breakfast, Jess gave me a unexpected body hug. I think she was buttering me up because she then asked for hot chocolate. Being that it was dark, cold and rainy at the time, the request for a hot beverage reminded me of The Big Bang Theory, so I complied. Continue reading