Training ABA Language Targets for Nonspeaking Students

Vicki Clarke
May 21, 2022

We met this adorable little fellow, Michael, today who is an emerging communicator using the Speak For Yourself app. Michael has ABA specialists who help him learn many new skills. Our chat with his mother reminded me of this tip sheet I created a while ago to help our ABA professionals working with us to teach language to AAC users.  AAC users have unique needs when working with an ABA protocol.  Here are a few ideas that may help!

Implementation Notes: Because the student is producing language in an alternative form than speech, his training for tacting and manding will have some slightly different considerations than for speaking patients.  There are 2 types of prompts which can be used to teach communication via a speech generating device:  stimulus prompts and response prompts

Response Prompts:  Prompts provided by the partner (backward chaining with physical prompts, direct point cues, direct verbal cues, indirect cues and natural cues).  Independent tacting on an SGD (speech generating device) requires navigation to reach vocabulary.  Interventionists can remove this requirement to simply target tacting by using “partner assisted navigation” where the therapist goes to the page where the vocabulary item exists and then asks the patient to label the presented photograph by touching the corresponding symbol on the page.

Independent manding on an SGD also requires navigation.  If you want the patient to exhibit the skill of manding in isolation of the navigation demand, similar to tacting, the therapist uses partner assisted navigation to take the student to the appropriate page and then expects the student to select the desired item to request.

In order to achieve independent tacting and manding on his communication device, the student must master navigation.  Navigation is taught through backward chaining in the following sequence:

o   Therapist navigates to the appropriate page for the student, student is asked to mand/tact on that specific page.

o   Therapist demonstrates navigation to the appropriate page, student is asked to mand/tact on that page

o   Therapist navigates to one page that links directly to the specific page where vocabulary is targeted.  Student is asked to select the button that links to the targeted page and then asked to mand/tact on that page. ex: therapist navigates to a dictionary (“things” or “my words” page) and the student is asked to select the appropriate category button

o   Therapist gradually backs out of navigation, teaching one page navigation at a time until student can navigate from the main page to the specific vocabulary page.

Stimulus Prompts:  prompts that are embedded in the page sets    Stimulus prompts are visual and position cues that are part of the presentation of the vocabulary.  They can include the following:

·        color coding,

·        hiding extraneous buttons/messages,

·        shape cues and

·        position cues on the page of the device.

If the training is completed on the student’s regular page set, the student will be able to use motor planning to assist him in navigation.  Clinical evidence and research indicates that this motor planning is often attained even in the absence of an understanding of categorical, grammatical or functional vocabulary organization.  Students simply learn the motor movements/locations on the screen required to get to the desired vocabulary.  They use visual images to assist in the initial learning stages but, like adults who type on a keyboard, students learn the position of the linking buttons to increase their rate of communication over time.

By simplifying learning through stimulus and response prompts, students can learn independent navigation of their devices in order to produce language spontaneously.  Prompting teaches words in the context of the student’s language system rather than on random pages that cannot be accessed independently by the student for future communication.

And remember, the most important thing about communicating using an AAC system, is COMMUNICATION!  Establishing social relationships is one of the most important functions of language development and communication so, whenever possible, sit down and have a good 'ole unstructured chat!

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