The Symbol Wars

To the best of my memory, my friend Rena was the first person that I heard use the term “symbol wars” to describe the professional discussions about pictures used in AAC systems to represent language. Over the years, these discussions have focused on defining characteristics of the pictures (transparent, translucent, opaque, sets vs. systems); describing picture assessment protocols for selecting the “best” picture to use for a person; outlining a hierarchy of representational methods; and critiquing picture and symbol systems as to their guess-ability versus teach-ability.

Most of these symbol war skirmishes were conducted on the battlefield of research and theory, stimulating many university dissertations and journal articles. I suppose, it was all part of the growing pains of a new field of practice. Teachers, parents, and therapists were making communication boards and if you purchased an AAC device, it came devoid of any pre-stored vocabulary (other than a few, such as the Handivoice 110, which represented vocabulary with printed words and letters).

The symbol war shifted with the invention of Minspeak! This was a whole new amazing paradigm, for representing and organizing vocabulary on an AAC system. It channeled our discussions about vocabulary, pictures, and organizational paradigms in a new direction – a small collection of multiple meaning pictures used systematically in short sequences (a lot like the 26 letters of the alphabet) vs. a set of single meaning pictures which grows and grows in number as more words are added to the AAC system.

In recent years, included in the discussions about learning and using pictures in AAC is the concept of motor plan. The observations of many astute people is that the most effective and efficient AAC communicators have become automatic their motor plan. And that the path to motor automaticity is having a unique and consistent motor pattern for each word in your AAC system. AAC users who are highly automatic no longer attend to or even need a picture display on their AAC device. They are both linguistically and motor-ically automatic, thinking only about what they want to say and not how to say it.

I agree that automaticity of communication is dependent on execution of a motor pattern.  But my nagging question is this: In the PROCESS of learning to communicate, what is the role of the picture?   Does the picture matter? Or can all learning to communicate be done through the learning of a motor plan? Could I use any picture on an AAC system and any organizational strategy because kids will accept the picture and use the picture in a motor plan if you model, model, model ……and guide their motor, motor, motor movements.

I don’t know the answer to those questions. What I do know is therapists and teachers caught in the symbol wars used to stress out about selecting “the best picture” for an AAC system. And now, when they learn about motor automaticity, they stress out over the idea of changing any arrangement of pictures, or having an AAC device with one arrangement of pictures and a backup system with a different arrangement. They generally ask, “If I change the motor plan, or have two motor plans, will the child no longer be able to communicate?”

Drag Queen Display

To address the question of “the best picture” and “it might not matter WHAT picture you use,” a colleague created The Drag Queen display as a banner for the new symbol wars raging today. (A modified version of the Pixon 50 Core Board.) We know the above questions are important and need to be addressed, but we don’t want to lose our sense of humor as we search for the answers.

So, when you’re deep in a symbol war battle, visualize the drag queen display. And remember, like a drag queen, things can get a little exaggerated and often humorous. But thinking out of normal stereotypical AAC practice is a good thing to continue to move the field of AAC forward.


I Love October

October in Florida is fabulous. It’s my favorite month. The weather has finally cooled off and the humidity no longer makes everything go limp or become soggy. I love October because doing therapy outside is now bearable. Can’t you just imagine sitting on a shady porch in an Adirondack-style rocking chair. (Infinitely nicer than many of the less-than-desirable spaces to which I’ve been consigned.)

Porch Therapy

The adults I support love sitting outside near the main entrance of their residence – close to all the in-and-out action! Familiar people swing by to say “hello” and visitors stop for a minute or two for a friendly chat. The communication partners are real, the topics are natural, and the quiet moments are natural.   It’s an ideal atmosphere to work on conversation and discourse skills.   We practice greeting, parting, making compliments, asking questions of others, and, of course, turn-taking.  But without the stress of expectations that come from sitting in a therapy space.

We are sitting outside in the rocking chair in the fresh October air …. no longer The Therapist and The Client. We are Two Friends, having a lovely chat on the porch.  Porch Therapy!   What a lovely way to work.

I Dread October


I dread October!    October is the month when there is an influx of new referrals for speech therapy services for clients enrolled in day programs for adults with developmental disabilities. It’s not the referrals that I dread, but the number of 22 year-old adults with low to no speech who have aged out of the school system and are entering the adult world without a personal AAC system.

I wish I could say that I no longer see adults leaving school without a personal AAC system, but I can’t. We are making progress, but we are still graduating students without the power of personal communication. I’ve just finished observing 3 new clients who have no functional speech and none of them brought with them, when they graduated from school, an AAC system that belongs to them and gives them access to language.

Their files describe all sorts of intervention that included components of AAC services – use of switches to control computer games, activity-specific displays developed to help them participate in school activities, and conversational scripts with sentences programmed on sequential message devices. Yet, through all of this activity, no personal AAC systems were ever developed.   No AAC systems were designed for their specific physical and access needs. No core vocabulary was ever identified and taught. No language was provided which would help them communicate to anyone, about anything, in any setting.   And nothing left the school building when they graduated.

And now they are 22 years old. When I’m done writing this blog, I’ll start making each of them a manual communication board so when I see them next week, they will have a start on a personal AAC system. And then I’ll begin the process of doing a formal AAC assessment and, if appropriate, recommend and wait for funding for a speech generating device.   It’s never too late to be given the chance to communicate with a personal AAC system, I just wish ……..

  • No child with low to no speech would leave elementary school without a personal AAC system.
  • No child with low to no speech would leave middle school without a personal AAC system.
  • No child with low to no speech would leave high school without a personal AAC system.

The Pick-Me-Uppers for Downer-Days Challenge

In August 1977, I started my first job as a SLP in the schools, working at a center-based school for children with severe disabilities.   I was one of several new SLPs that year. At our first department meeting, our supervisor (Larry B) gave each of us a green plastic folder labeled “Pick-Me-Uppers for Downer-Days.” He instructed us to file away every note of encouragement that we received. He told us to pull out this folder and start reading them whenever we had a hard or difficult day.

I still have my folder and I am glad to say that it is full. In 2015, most of my notes of encouragement come as email or text messages. Very few people take the time to actually write out a nice note and mail it.

I’ve decided to change that this school year.

As part of AAC professional development of school personnel, I’m making a commitment to write at least 2 notes of encouragement every month for the 2015 – 2016 school year.   I’m going to use nice stationary, my good calligraphy pens, and pretty stamps! I might even slip something fun into select notes – like a gift card! That means I have to keep my eyes and ears open – and my heart and mind focused on being grateful for all the AAC work done by teachers, assistants, therapists, principals, bus drivers, janitors, and lunch ladies!

I challenge you to join me in the “The Pick-Me-Uppers for Downer-Days Challenge.” Commit to writing at least 2 notes of encouragement every month for the 2015-2016 school year.  That’s only 18 notes – very do-able!

  • Find an assistant who might be struggling to understand how to use a student’s AAC device in class and give that person a word of encouragement.
  • Write a note to a parent who might feel like no one at school appreciates how hard it is to keep up with all the therapy and school schedules – and acknowledge to him/her that you see how hard they are working to help his/her child.
  • Slip a nice note into your principal’s mailbox thanking her/him for creating a culture of communication at the school that values the use of AAC.

Let’s unleash the power of encouragement this school year!

AAC Communities

It was November 1992. Special Interest Group 12 (AAC) of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) had just publishing their first newsletter. Yours truly was the newsletter editor – a task that I would do through 1996.

From SIG 12 Newsletter

From SIG 12 Newsletter

In 1992, the coordinator of SIG 12 was Dr. Carolyn Watkins, and other committee members included Joan Bruno, Kathleen Kangas, Arlene Kraat, and myself. During my stint on the committee from 1992 to 1996, I was also privileged to serve with Faith Carlson, Mary Blake-Huer, Lyle Lloyd, Rose Sevcik, Tracy Kovach, and Sheila Bridges. That’s a litany of impressive names in the field of AAC.   It was my privilege to volunteer for my professional organization. Fifteen years later, I once again said “yes” to service.

On January 1, 2011, I started another stint on the SIG 12 Coordinating Committee, serving through December 31, 2013. Then, I agreed to be the first SIG 12 Professional Development Manager, extending my time on the Coordinating Committee through December 31, 2016!

There are many different AAC communities and groups you could join.   And I hope you ARE joining them!    Communities are a great source of education and professional development.

Here’s my Top Three Things I’ve Learned from Being Part of AAC Communities.

  1. Community reminds you that you are not always right. Healthy communities encourage open, honest discussions that give equal opportunity to every voice.   Everyday it reminds me that if you and I think exactly alike, then one of us is redundant.
  2. Community relieves you of the notion that you are indispensible. The next generation of AAC experts is bringing exciting new ideas and energy with them. Anyone who thinks that she is essential for the survival of the field is fooling herself.
  3. Community provides you with the opportunity of companionship. It is said that, “you are known by the company that you keep.” I’ve been with some pretty amazing company and I’m honored to be in community with the.   The relationships that have developed now extend well beyond the realm of shared professional interests. I have life-long friends with people from my AAC community. Together, we’ve taken vacations, visited family, and shared tears at the loss of a loved one. My life is richer because of the AAC community.

Hectic Summer

Garrison Keller is the host of a very popular live radio variety show called A Prairie Home Companion. (NOTE: If you have never listened to it, do it soon because Garrison is retiring!) He does a monologue that opens with him saying, “Well, it’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegon, Minnesota, my hometown, out there on the edge of the prairie.”   Similarly, I would say, “Well, it’s been a HECTIC month in Orlando, Florida, my hometown, out there on the edge of the swamp.”

July has been a month of due dates on professional projects, family responsibilities and therapy craziness. There’s been absolutely no time to stop and write a blog. It is going to be at least another 2 or 3 weeks before I reach the light at the end of the tunnel.

I want to offer a few words of advice to my colleagues who I know work as hard as I do.

  • If you haven’t had a chance to read a trashy novel at the beach (covered in sun screen, of course), you’ve still got time. Reading journals and professional development materials can wait for a bit.
  • If you haven’t gotten a summer pedicure, get those piggies down to the salon. You deserve a little pampering for all the extra miles you put in to help people with disabilities.
  • If you haven’t had a picnic in a park, pack yourself a basket of goodies and go find a relaxing, shady spot. Re-charge when you can because your break-neck schedule of IEP meetings, therapy sessions, staff trainings, and professional conferences is no picnic.

I promise I will post more stories once I have time to think, reflect, and write. Meanwhile, I wanted to wish everyone a happy summer.

Now stop reading blogs and go do something fun!

Remembering Jonathan

The month of June is almost over.  For many, June marks the start of summer, when the living is supposed to be easy.  For me; however, June is a time for remembering Jonathan.

There wasn’t a teacher or therapist that wasn’t impressed with Jonathan’s enthusiasm and persistence in trying to communicate.    He loved to talk football (a HUGE Florida Gator fan), ride horses, and go go go go go!  (One of the few words he said that was clearly understood by everyone.)  His dream after graduating high school was to get a decked out RV and travel the country.   Over the years, we made an AFTER I GRADUATE list of all the great adventures he wanted to do – which included spitting/hollering in the Grand Canyon and singing karaoke in a country-western bar in Colorado.  (Jonathan – I only have 1 more thing on the list to do – flying over an active volcano.)

Jonathan had a significant health incident on June 5, 2007 and passed away on June 26, 2007. He was 19 years old and I had been part of his life since he was 2.  For 15 years, I drove to his school and home, spending the day with him. On the anniversary of his release from the restrictions of his body, I am remembering him with one lone tear and a full heart of gladness and gratitude.

Thank you J for being my teacher.  Most of what I learned about persisting through access challenges, I learned from you.  You taught me about the person-partner dance that is key to partner assisted scanning. You are still my best evidence that core vocabulary in an AAC system is key to developing communication competence.  And you will forever be whispering in my ear, reminding me to keeping advocating for people who use and need AAC.  Today I remember you!

Optimism Galore

I’m filled with optimism about the future of AAC!

For the past three days, I’ve been collaborating with a colleague (Kelly) who is one of the most creative, passionate, knowledgeable, and skilled teachers I have ever had the pleasure of knowing!   Kelly had me in awe as she shared her incredible wealth of “We’re-doing-it-every-day-in-my-school-district” practicality!  I watched the audience growing in enthusiasm as she shared idea after idea after idea.  There was a buzz in the air with whispered comments at the tables like “wow, that would work with my class” or “we could do that next week in summer school.”

Then, there are the people who have chosen to spend 3 days of professional development when they could be on summer vacation.  Across the board, I’M IMPRESSED!   First, because I see many faces in the audience that weren’t born when I started my career in 1977.  And those faces are enthusiastic, bright, and creative.  Next, I see colleagues who bring a range of experiences, talents, and insights to the party.  Their questions and comments show me that they are thoughtfully striving to provide quality, evidence-based AAC intervention.  Finally, I see teams – teams with SLPs, special education teachers, general education teachers, OTs, and parents!  It reflects the kind of multi-disciplinary collaboration that is the backbone of AAC intervention.

So, at the end of 3 days, instead of being bone-tired, I’m incredibly optimistic because ….

  • the message of core vocabulary is in good hands;
  • these good people are going to pass along what they’ve learned; and
  • we haven’t seen anything yet when it comes to the positive changes that are going to spread from teacher to teacher, family to family, and school to school!

Thank you for an amazing, awe inspiring 3 days.  My gratitude …… beyond words.

Cooking with Core: An AAC Mashup


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I love everything related to food!  (It might be my real passion.)   I love reading cookbooks, watching TV cooking shows, experimenting with recipes, planning dinner parties, browsing through specialty food stores, listening to food-based podcasts (LOVE America’s Test Kitchen) and acquiring all sorts of cooking gadgets and appliances.  My most recent purchase was a pizza stone and pizza peel so that I could finally master the perfect, crispy thin-crust home-made pizza!

So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I combine cooking with AAC Intervention.  For the past 6 months, I’ve been compiling easy-to-make recipes and “coring them out” as a strategy for teaching core vocabulary, as well as the pragmatic function of directing others.  During the cooking activity, I state the original direction and then “core it out” so that the students can tell someone what to do.   “Preheat the oven” becomes “make it hot before you put things in.”   And “evenly spread it across the top” becomes “put the same all over the top.”   Fruit Pizza is one example of what I’ve done!

Fruit Pizza

Many of my recipes are tried and true family favorites.   My nieces and nephews will gobble up a batch of “Crocodile Bars” and my sister-in-law will light up when she hears I’ve made “Milk Dud Torte” for Sunday lunch dessert.  A while back, I brought a dozen “Pistachio Energy Bites” for the lifeguards who watch over me during my early morning swim – and they were gone before I finished my laps!  During AAC Intervention, the students and staff members have all enjoyed being part of a session when cooking has been involved.  Cooking with Core is a very motivating strategy for communication partner training!

Do you use cooking with students as part of your AAC intervention?  If you do, I would love to hear from you.  What are some of your favorite recipes?  Share them with me and I’ll core them out for you!  (Already – Thank you to Karen Kangas for sharing your Apple Cake recipe with me.  It is fabulous and so easy!)

I can’t wait to hear how you are Cooking with Core in your AAC intervention!