April is autism awareness month:
Day 13 Augmentative and Alternative Communication #2 How it works.
Not many people know how to speak to someone who cannot communicate verbally.
Before having Dylan I had very little experience of interacting with anyone who could not speak clearly and I remember the whole situation feeling very overwhelming and not very comfortable. Since having Dylan and his IPad I still have not actually met anyone else who uses an AAC system the way he does; I know they’re out there but opportunities to meet someone who communicates like Dylan does are so few and far between.
This societal lack of exposure is bound to make people feel nervous or apprehensive. Therefore I understand that talking with Dylan using his IPad can seem a daunting process. “Will I understand him?”, “Will he understand me?”, and “What will I do if it all goes wrong?” are common and understandable worries.
In society we naturally expect when speaking to someone that we maintain a level of eye contact and that the conversation flows easily. Sadly this isn’t the case when talking to Dylan with his iPad but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible or difficult; just different.
We need to make some simple adjustments to the way we expect the interaction to occur to encourage Dylan to feel able to speak freely with his iPad and feel the interest that we have in what he has to say with it. So here is a whistle stop tour of how it can work.
Although it’s not always possible to set up ideal situations, a quiet environment with minimal background noise can help Dylan concentrate on the conversation.
It helps to face Dylan when you are talking with him, it will enable him to find it easier to communicate. Although it’s not always effective it allows Dylan a better chance of picking up visual clues like body language, gesture and facial expressions.
If unsure you could start off by asking if there is anything specific that Dylan needs to help him in your interaction, Dylan’s recent pastime is listening to the free U2 download on his IPad (Bono is driving me mad!) On an additional note this *constant* noise runs down the battery on his IPad; with no charge in the battery there will be no way that Dylan can use his IPad to interact with you and the conversation will fail.
So it’s always worth checking he has what he needs to talk with you.
Before you start please be aware that however brief the interaction Dylan will need more time than if you were with a speaking person. Be prepared to give him that time.
When you ask a question, wait for a reply, even if it takes a second or two – which I know can feel like an eternity (what is it that’s so awkward about moments of silence in company?) It can take Dylan a while to process what’s been said and formulate his answer before he even looks at the IPad; he just needs you to wait a second or two.
It’s really important that you feel comfortable with that.
First things first, make eye contact and speak directly to Dylan, not me. This may take a couple of attempts; Dylan sadly is used to people talking over him to speak to Mark or myself. By looking at him and directing speech towards him you will get, and keep, his attention.
It’s important to keep your own responses short and simple, this helps Dylan to follow the conversation and gives him a chance to speak, also avoid just asking questions which require ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers; this quickly becomes boring for everyone.
It is often tempting to finish off Dylan’s sentence for him to speed things up but this is to be avoided, it is all too often the start of misunderstandings. If you’re not sure you’ve understood him, take time to rephrase his response. Misunderstandings happen all the time in normal conversation. We all use little phrases like “Hang on a minute did you say…” Dylan can’t use these easily. It really helps if you watch his face and if he looks confused its worth checking again that he has understood. Don’t be afraid to ask “Did you mean …” or “Could you say that again?”
When speaking with Dylan the pace of interaction is slower so it helps to introduce one topic of conversation at a time. It’s necessary to be clear if you are changing the topic and avoid using too many gestures or facial expressions unless it is clear that he can see you, Dylan may lose subtle clues from your face as he looks down to his IPad to respond to you.
It is almost impossible for Dylan to interject into a conversation. It is appreciated however if you make time and invite questions, rather than expect him to question or strike up a conversation.
Although asking questions is important in conversation, be aware that there are different types of questions. It is helpful to structure a conversation by only asking one question at a time. Questions starting with ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘when’, ‘why’, ‘how’ and ‘if’ prompt a more detailed response; questions like this will take extra time for Dylan to distinguish the question type but it is worth waiting for his answer.
When the natural flow of conversation is slow, it can feel like hard work prompting feelings of fatigue and loss of concentration. This is more likely to happen to you than it is to Dylan; this is the type of conversation he is becoming used to and he is busy working away at it while we are patiently waiting for his response. It is perfectly acceptable to ask him for you to have a break while he finishes off what he is writing, but if the conversation has not been completed then it is only polite to say you will return to finish it. Like-wise if you notice Dylan seems tired or is having difficulty focusing it may be wise to ask if he wants a break too. He is less able than we are to suggest this so it’s a good idea if you sense he is getting tired to suggest he take a little break for the conversation.
Typical non-verbal clues to end a conversation such as looking away or fidgeting can be lost on Dylan as he may not see these clues while looking down at his IPad. It helps him if you openly warn him that you need to move on or have to go. It is also courteous to check he has finished his sentence before you do end the conversation!
It’s simple really and the more you engage with people like Dylan, the better at it you will become.