2004 Conference Proceedings

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Deanna Wagner
Assistive Technology Specialist
Southwest Human Development
202 East Earll, Suite 140
Phoenix, AZ 85012
(602) 266-5976 (year round phone)
Email: dwagner@swhd.org

Dr. Caroline Ramsey Musselwhite
Assistive technology consultant
Special Communications
916 West Castillo Drive
Litchfield Park, AZ 85340
(602) 935-4656 (year round phone)
Email: carmussel@mindspring.com

Kim Daswick
parent of AAC user
8661 E. Dahlia Dr
Scottsdale, AZ 85260
Email: kdaswick@cox.net

WHY Set Up a Community AAC Group?

Blackstone & Berg (2003) have developed the concept of Circles of Communication Partners. Of the five circles, communicating with Unfamiliar Partners (Circle 5) seems to be especially challenging . . . and daunting . . . for many AAC users. This is true because unfamiliar partners have no shared knowledge to draw on, have no idea about how communication devices function, often do not know the 'rules' of communicating with AAC users (such as speaking directly to the users, pausing), and do not have any strategies to try when communication breakdowns occur. We decided that a monthly community outing for AAC users, with very specific AAC goals, would support our students in using their devices in general, and with unfamiliar listeners in particular.

A second and equally important goal was to provide support for AAC users and their families. The users realize that there are other students 'just like me' and have (or become) role models. Families provide a support network for each other.

WHO Might Come to AAC Community Meetings?

This users group evolved from a small, homogeneous group of teenaged girls to a larger, heterogeneous group of AAC users and their family members and mentors.

Phase 1: The Fox Girls. Initially, four young teenage girls comprised the group. Three of the girls were at our first AAC camp. They had such a delightful time together, and were so clearly bonded that we decided to continue the gatherings when we returned to The City. We then added the fourth student. This group was quite homogeneous, with all four being teen-aged girls, all ambulatory, and all using the same communication device and language system.

Phase 2: Fox Girls and Friends! As other families heard about our group, we got repeated requests to join the group. We began offering occasional large group meetings, and the group took off in terms of membership. The range in age is now 4 - 28, with a range of communication devices and language systems in use. Students use various access methods, from direct selection to scanning via mouth switch to two switch scanning. Approximately half of the group uses a wheelchair for mobility.

Partners and Mentors. Each student that attends the group is required to bring an adult family member or mentor. The mentor is often a respite worker or parapro. Siblings often attend the group, adding richness and supporting follow-through at home.

WHAT Should Happen During Meetings?

Activities and Outings. A range of outings and events have been scheduled, including the following:

Importantly, it is NOT about the outing. It is very easy to allow focus to be on the event only, and ignore communication interaction. We have found it important to focus on specific goals, and encourage communication with both unfamiliar partners and other AAC users. Janice Light (1989, 1998) defines communicative competence as ". . . the ability to communicate functionally in the naturally environment and to adequately meet daily communication needs." She further describes four sets of skills that AAC users must have to be competent communicators. We tried to incorporate these areas into our monthly AAC Group meetings:

Linguistic Skills include receptive and expressive skills in the native language spoken by the family and broader social community. This includes skills in the 'linguistic' code of the AAC system. Examples include teaching vocabulary, icon sequences, navigating dictionaries, past tense.

Sample Out & About Activities:

Operational Skills refer to the technical skills required to use the AAC system(s) accurately, efficiently, and appropriately. Examples include: using a head pointer to indicate items on a communication board and using row-column scanning with a single switch.

Sample Out & About Activities:

Social Skills refer to knowledge, judgment, and skills in the social rules of interaction. Included are skills to initiate, maintain, develop, and terminate interactions; skills to develop positive relationships and interactions with others; and skills to express a full range of communicative functions.

Sample Out & About Activities:

Strategic Skills refer to compensatory strategies that may be utilized by individuals who use AAC to overcome functional limitations that restrict their effectiveness as communicators. An example is providing new partners with information about how to communicate with them.

Sample Out & About Activities:

For sample activities, see: Communicate! Interactive Approaches to Support AAC Users - A CD (Musselwhite & Wagner, 2004). http://www.aacintervention.com.

HOW To Scaffold AAC Success

Cheat Sheets: For some students, it is helpful to plan a vocabulary set for the activity and prepare a cheat sheet (ex: icon sequences.

Use of Props: Concrete props can be helpful for beginning communicators.

Goal-Setting: Talking for Points! We initially wondered if it was appropriate to have students work for points and prizes. The results seem to support that approach. Goals vary for students depending on their age and facility with the language in their communication device. We will demonstrate the evolution of goal-setting, and show sample goal sheets and feedback for various students.

Advance Notice of Goals: Participants are sent notice of targets for the next week, so they can explore devices to find appropriate vocabulary. Ex: one 'getting to know you' activity had generative communicators planning interviews with responses from three categories: colors / feelings / foods. Those three categories were sent to beginning communicators to practice.

Facilitator / Partner Roles Training: Parents, teachers, therapists, siblings, and mentors are shown how to talk with students when in the role of partner (ex: ask open-ended questions, pause, maintain eye contact), and facilitator (be subtle; don't over-prompt; don't have eye contact with the AAC user's partner, etc.) See: www.aacintervention.com / Tip of the Month for a partner / facilitator handout.


This group has grown and changed each semester, and the goals and strategies have been modified across time. Our initial goals were focused on Circle 5 (Unfamiliar Partners). However, this community group has actually been even more supportive for Circle 2 (Good Friends - remember the initial Fox Girls!) and Circle 3 (Favorite Acquaintances), as students have opportunities to communicate with each other. One delight of this group has been the mentoring that independent AAC users have done for emergent and context-dependent AAC users.


Blackstone, S. & Berg, M. (2003). Social Networks. http://www.augcominc.com.

Light, J. & Binger, C. (1998). Building Communicative Competence with Individuals Who Use Augmentative and Alternative Communication. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

Musselwhite, C. & Wagner, D. (2004). Communicate! Interactive Approaches to Support AAC Users - A CD. http://www.aacintervention.com.

Perske, R. & Perske, M. (1988). Circles of Friends: People with Disabilities and Their Friends Enrich the Lives of One Another. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

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