Thursday, April 1, 2010

Technology: Devices, Software Can Help Young Children Communicate

by Tenley McDonald

It’s no secret that children have feelings, opinions, and desires they want to express. If your child has autism, developmental delays, or any other disability that makes communication difficult, you already know how frustrating and upsetting that impediment can be for you and your child.

What you may not know is that an array of communication devices and software can help. Known as augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), these tools can help even very young children express their wants, develop stronger relationships with peers, and find inclusion in the classroom and elsewhere.

Here are two popular types of AAC you may want to consider for your child.

Picture Communication Symbols

Often the first form of AAC used by young children, picture communication symbols (PCS) consist of simple images showing objects, actions, and feelings. By pointing to a given symbol—a picture of a favorite toy, for example—your child can make choices and communicate his or her wants and needs. PCS software programs such as Boardmaker by Mayer-Johnson or Picture It by Slater Software allow you to create customized communication materials for your child. They usually contain a searchable graphics database to help you find specific symbols, such as images associated with a birthday party or your child’s morning routines. You also can use digital photos and images to create simple communication symbols and schedules.

Mid-tech Devices

If your child needs more support when communicating, a device that incorporates PCS and voice output may be a good option. These devices feature a recorded voice that “speaks” when the corresponding button or picture is activated. You may want to start with a simple one-message device such as the BigMack by AbleNet or Partner Plus Communicator by AMDI.

Once your child becomes familiar with how the device works, you may want a more advanced version that can expand his or her choices. A device with four message buttons and five levels, for example, would hold 20 pre-recorded messages. This feature provides a much broader vocabulary without additional programming and without overwhelming your child with more-complicated technology. The Go Talk 4+ by Attainment and SuperTalker by AbleNet, for example, have multiple buttons and levels.

Mid-tech devices can range from $10 to $2,500, so try out a few before making a purchase. Look for one that motivates your child, is appropriate for his or her abilities, and offers more advanced capabilities your child could use as his or her skills develop. Many assistive technology companies and centers offer “try before you buy” loan programs.

All people need to communicate. For young children whose disabilities interfere with their ability to share their ideas, feelings, needs, and wants, AAC can offer a solution.

To learn more about AAC software and devices, contact the Simon Technology Center at 952-838-9000 or You may also want to check out the AAC publications at