A Case for Exploration (AAC style)

Think, for a moment, about the value of simply exploring something new
What’s the first thing you do when you get a new tool (a drill, for example)? Do you unwrap it and turn it over in your hands to look at it from every angle? Do you feel the weight of it and the texture of its “skin?” Do you locate and press all the buttons and turn all the knobs (before you turn on the power, of course!)? You might even—gasp!—read the manual (or not).
My guess is that you do. Unless you are already an expert with the drill, you probably familiarize yourself with this new toy before you create an heirloom woodworking project. Me? I’d need to do this even before just drilling a pilot hole in the wall to hang a picture.
Now think about our kids who need augmentative tools to communicate. They absolutely need time to familiarize themselves with the tools before they can use them efficiently and accurately. They need time to explore without pressure of performance. While this is important even with simple single switch voice output, it is critical with complex computerized devices.
What does exploration look like?
--Exploration is extended time with no pressure to perform.
--Exploration helps children understand the physical requirements of the device…where to touch, how much pressure to use, how long to dwell with hand or gaze.
--Exploration lets kids play with navigation between screens or activity rows. It lets them learn where vocabulary is stored and the key sequences to call up that vocabulary.
--Exploration lets children learn by trial and error without any penalties for those errors…and this can be highly motivating!
We also know from educational research that information that is “discovered,” rather than “taught,” is most easily retained. Letting children discover how to use their devices will help this learning stick. If, as they explore, they come up with questions and problems, the suggestions we offer will have much greater meaning and be more likely to stick as well.
Exploration doesn’t look like…
… being asked for responses to specific questions
… enduring endless prattle in the background
… being interrupted with comments or questions
…Mom/teacher/therapist breathing over your shoulder
…perfect grammar or syntax
It also isn’t “errorless,” in the sense that a child has no opportunities to make mistakes. It does allow the child to make errors but there is no penalty for “saying the wrong thing.” Instead, children learn what they did incorrectly so they avoid doing it again.
Thanks to an incredibly generous loan of a voice output device from a dear friend, our daughter has had the opportunity to explore without pressure. And the payoff is starting to come.
Remember awhile ago when I shared my concerns for my daughter’s communication shut-downSince then, we’ve been giving her time each day, 30-45 minutes, to simply sit with this borrowed device and a reflective dot to activate the head tracker (not her best access method, but it’s what we have available right now). There are no questions to answer, no directions to “say this” or “tell me that.” The only thing we do is respond to what she says.
Some of her exploration finds her on a screen she may not have planned to go to, but exploration gives her freedom to make something useful of that screen. It brings to mind the old adage of “making lemonade out of lemons.” Certainly she learns plenty as she navigates her way out of this unfamiliar territory! We suspect that is how she managed to request that I call a friend of hers who lives out of state to send greetings. You can bet I called her friend’s house right away!
Days later she was able to create a deliberate message requesting that her caregiver come sit with her at the device. This even included a response after the caregiver promised she would. It was a very exciting morning, to be sure!
Exploration seems to be helping pull her out of her communication slump.
Do we expect perfection? No!!! This is a time to learn and work out navigation for herself. It’s not time yet to pressure her to perform…she has a lifetime ahead of her for that. Today it’s quite enough that she simply explore. The more exploration time she gets, the more meaningful the things are that come up on her device’s message window. Pressure isn’t going to improve that. Time is.
Just like that heirloom woodworking project where results matter, our kids’ communication matters. Let’s make sure they have the time to explore the tools they need before we expect them to produce meaningful results.
(Photo by Samuel M. Livingston at Flickr)

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