2000 Conference Proceedings

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Communication Strategies for the Beginning Communicator

Beginning communicators are individuals of all ages who have limited symbolic communication skills. Beukleman and Mirenda (1998) report that these individuals may rely on gestures, vocalizations, eye gaze, and body language. In addition, these individuals may not exhibit communicative intentionality, they may be only beginning to utilize symbols to represent basic messages or they may use simple technology or communication displays for participation and communication.

This presentation will focus on strategies for planning and implementing augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) for beginning communicators of all ages. Strategies will include creating opportunities for communication as well as initiating the teaching of nonsymbolic communication. Videotape of the individuals for evaluation with the Participation Model (Beukleman and Mirenda, 1998) and small group activities will be utilized to step participants through the process for creating opportunities and developing goals, objectives, strategies, and activities to assist beginning communicators with communicative participation in educational activities, routines, and daily activities.

The participants will learn to select target vocabulary as well as a method for incorporating the vocabulary into daily routines and activities. Specific strategies will include the use of simple signs, eye gaze, one-shot message communication aids, picture communication boards, schedule boards, and adapted books and materials. These strategies will include a variety of simple technologies that can be utilized to create a foundation for future, more sophisticated communication systems.

By providing adequate communication opportunities and experiences to beginning communicators, introductory skills may be refined and lead to more advanced emerging skills. Determining appropriate strategies for allowing a means for beginning communicators to actively and efficiently participate (receive and respond) within a communicative exchange is essential.

Simple signs coupled with or without speech are commonly used with individuals having severe communication difficulties (delays). Not only is using signs beneficial for individuals with communication difficulties, but research also suggests that using simple signs with beginning communicators can assist language stimulation.

According to Beukelman and Mirenda (1998), the main reasons for utilizing simple signs within a speech-based approach are as follows:

  1. Using manual signs simplifies the input
  2. Using manual signs reduces the physical demands and pressures for speech productions
  3. Using manual signs allows vocabulary to be taught while maintaining the userís attention
  4. Using manual signs decreases the auditory memory and processing requirements while using simplified language

Eye gaze or eye pointing is another strategy which can be used for the beginning communicator. This method is most widely used with individuals having physical impairments that inhibit direct access of other communication alternatives. Eye gaze provides an alternative means for communication through the use of an eye-gaze board/ frame or communication vest. Familiar communication symbols are positioned on the board or vest and the user conveys his response to the communication partner looks at the chosen symbol then back at the communication partner to confirm the selection.

Other simple technologies which are flexible and at the same time easily adjusted within the daily routines of a beginning communicators environment are the one-shot message communication aids. These simple low-tech communication aids allow for the communication message to be changed as needed by a teacher or assistance to accommodate the messages needed from activity to activity. These devices provide the beginning framework for other more advanced communication strategies from which to build. As the user becomes more appropriate and deliberate with the one-shot messages, more advanced technologies can be explored.

While determining appropriate strategies and methods for allowing communication, other factors for ensuring successful communication are: having opportunities to communicate, having a need to communicate, and removing opportunity barriers. Often times, having the presence of a communication partner does not automatically guarantee a successful communication opportunity. Therefore, a growing need for creating opportunities and need for communication has been identified as crucial for promoting effective communication for persons with disabilities (Light, 1997).

A communication opportunity refers to "situations in which the partner deliberately intervenes to require and ensure a communication response from the individual that is appropriate to a current environmental cue or motivational need" (Sigafoos, p.184, 1999). Studies have revealed that individuals with severe/multiple disabilities have considerable communication deficits. This indicates a need for increasing the number of communication opportunities in order to improve a beginning communicatorís skills.

Whether using an eye gaze board/frame, communication vest, one-shot message communication aids, or a picture communication board, appropriate communication options must be available for allowing communication opportunities in a variety of settings. The settings include the individualís most common environment such as the home, but should also include options appropriate to use within other social settings outside of the home.

Opportunity barriers may interfere with an individualís opportunities for successful communication. Having a partner that is not familiar with how to successful create or recognize a possible communication opportunity is an opportunity barrier that is often seen. Providing education to potential communication partners about how to create and identify opportunities is important. (Sigafoos, 1999). Other barriers that may limit communication opportunities may include limited available options or choices appropriate for communication. For this reason, it is necessary to evaluate the users daily activities and routines to assure adequate communication options. If appropriate responses are available to the user, then increased communication opportunities will likely emerge.

Signafoos (1999) discussed strategies for engineering the environment to increase communicative opportunities. Two of these strategies include using a missing item format and blocked response format. In the missing item format, an item or toy of interest is withheld until a request for the item is made. Prompting may be used initially with the communication partner decreasing the amount of prompting being provided over time. Blocked response involves briefly blocking the individualís response during an activity. As soon as a request for the desired item is given, the item or request is provided and the individual is allowed to complete the task.

In conclusion, beginning communicators must be taught how to actively communicate for successful participation in communication to occur. They must also be taught how to participate within functional communication exchanges. Some of the methods and strategies most often utilized for promoting beginning communication skills for an individual with disabilities are creating opportunities for communication and the appropriate application of nonsymbolic communication. Eye-gaze, simple signs, one-shot message communication aids, picture communication boards, and schedule boards are just a few alternatives that can be used with a beginning communicator.


Beulelman, D.R., & Mirenda, P. (1998). Augumentative and alternative communication: Management of severe communication disorders in children and adults. 2nd ed. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Light, J. (1997). " Communication is the essence of human life": Reflections on communicative competence. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 13, 61-70.

Sigafoos, J., (1999). Creating Opportunities for Augmentative and alternative communication: Strategies for involving people with developmental disabilities. AAC Augmentative and Alternative Communication,15, 183-190. 

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