What is communication? It is the development of children’s understanding of language and using language in different ways, such as requesting for bubbles, labelling an aeroplane in the sky and answering questions. A lot of our young children with communication delay find it difficult to express communication and to be understood by another individual. Some children do not speak, and some may not speak until they are 4 years old. While ABA (Applied Behaviour Analysis) has been shown in research to be effective in increasing communication (Vietze & Lax, 2018), how do we get there?
4 ways to teach communication
Learning to request for preferred items or activities is often the first step of communication a child learns. Thinking about everyday routine, a child may have meltdowns, or engage in behavioural episodes, when they want something but people around them do not understand what they are trying to communicate. Therefore, one of the first programmes we teach our children with communication delay is often to request for preferred items. Before implementing or teaching any of the following, speak to your BCBA to help decide which is best suited for your child. Each of these requires different pre-requisite skills and your child may be suited with one more than the other, depending on different factors, eg. variety of sounds, motor skills, visual skills.
This is using speech to request for something that the child wants, for example, ‘ball’ or ‘kick ball’. Some of the pre-requisites include ability to vocally imitate sounds and having a great variety of sounds in their repertoire.
PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System)
PECS allows the individual to exchange picture to make requests. This typically looks like a binder full of pictures with different pages. For example, if a child wants an apple, the child is then taught to select the picture of an apple and exchange it to the communication partner. PECS can also be used to expand sentence length, eg. ‘cut apple’ or ‘give me apple on plate’. Research has also found that PECS has helped increasing speech production of intelligible words (Ganz & Simpson, 2004).
App-based devices/ Speech generating devices
App-based devices, eg. Proloquo-2-Go, mimic PECS, but instead of a binder, it uses a portable table, eg iPad. Like PECS, there has been research showing an increase in vocal requests in children who use a speech generating device to communicate (Muharib et al., 2021). However, there will be times when the device will be unavailable, for example when it is charging or if it is broken.
Sign language is using individuals’ bodily movements and hand gestures to communicate their needs and wants. This works great with children who have good motor and imitation skills. There has also been research showing that implementing vocal prompting with sign language has increased vocal responses. (Carbone, Sweeney-Kerwin, Attanasio, & Kasper, 2013).
An important consideration before teaching any of these is the audiences that would respond to the requests. In other words, we want to teach a child a communication system that is easiest for them to learn but also likely to be understood with a larger community as opposed to a particular vocalisation which is only understood by the child’s parent.
-Sharon Chung, ABA Therapist – First Bridge Centre