We are blogging each section of our Report and Recommendations to the Ontario Government’s Autism Advisory Committee. Read the full report here: Ontario Recommendations- Inclusion is the New Gold Standard
Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) is any means of communication–aside from verbal speech–that allows someone to use language. AAC is used by people with various disabilities, including some autistic people. It can include:
- Sign language
- Visual aids
- Speech-output devices like phones or iPads
AAC Access in Ontario
Communication is a cornerstone of learning. One of the biggest steps our province can take for autistic children and youth is to prioritize access to AAC for non-verbal and partially-verbal students.
AAC gives these students an essential tool for communication and regulation, leading to a fulfilled life as a child and in adulthood. It also opens the door to many opportunities and the kind of autonomy that every person deserves.
Unfortunately, studies show that many schools and IBI centres wait far too long to give access to AAC. Ontario should lead the way in removing that barrier to communication.
Below is a testimonial from one of our members who needed AAC by did not get access to it until he was an adult. Derek Burrow now works as an information specialist for a major library in Ottawa:
“When I found AAC it was like throwing a drowning person a lifeline. It has changed my life. I was able to get employment supports through ODSP; they set me up with an employment support worker who helped me find and apply to jobs…I went from minimum wage, followed by unemployment, to a full time job where I am constantly getting praise for the quality of my work.
“I didn’t change. My skill set didn’t change. My work experience didn’t change. The way I look and act didn’t change. The only thing that changed was how I communicate. And, yes, part of that was also being taught how to properly communicate in a job interview. Instead of fighting to make cogent responses, I was able to sit down and just let my brain say its piece with my mind getting in the way. I aced my job interview and here I am now. I cannot stress enough how big a difference AAC has made for me.”
Deanna Shoyer, a Hamilton-based parent of a 12-year-old in Ontario public schools also wrote to us:
“AAC in its broadest sense (including visual supports like calendars for example) has made it possible for my children to thrive in an inclusive school environment. It is an essential element for inclusion to succeed.
“Fostering inclusion is not just the right thing to do, I believe it’s the most efficient way to support disabled people. In education, it lifts the academic performance and happiness of all kids, not just disabled ones. Growing up included in the community and given tools to succeed (like AAC) results in disabled adults who are less likely to rely on public assistance like ODSP.”
A parent from Scarborough, Cathy Wright, wrote:
“I have a 23 year old son, who is a non-speaking autistic man. From early childhood, he was presumed incompetent at school. As parents, we were given very poor professional advice. We were not told that a communication system might change our son’s life. … At 17, a support person who had experience with Supported Typing (a form of AAC) offered a letterboard to my son and we began having the first conversations with him ever. We learned that he was a polite, empathetic, sensitive, funny kid who was interested in art, politics, world affairs and travel.
“If you’re inclined to think that a non-speaking autistic person who is discovered to have the capacity to think, learn and communicate in a sophisticated way is a miracle of some kind, know that we have met well over twenty people just like my son, who are using Augmentative & Alternative Communication devices to direct their own lives. Yet the vast majority of non-speaking autistics are trapped inside their bodies with no communication tools. They are institutionalized in high numbers. Their support in school is primarily behaviour management. Why not instead offer communication tools?”
As A4A member Ren Everett, wrote, when assessing a child for autism, professionals should be required to:
“take into consideration whether or not the child is speaking, and if not, communication-based treatment should be the very first thing they receive, as opposed to behavioural therapy.”
Jim Meunier, an AAC user from Coldwater Ontario discussed the need to recognize AAC for inclusion in society:
“Protecting the rights of autistic AAC users to communicate and be heard in the education system, in our workplaces, housing and healthcare, is pivotal to recognizing our full and collective participation in these areas.”
Problems and Challenges
Some parents worry that giving an AAC system to their child will prohibit the development of verbal speech. However, research shows that this is not the case – in fact, the opposite is often true. Access to AAC encourages all types of communication.
Many teachers and staff do not understand AAC and they need education on how to communicate directly with AAC-using students.
Other teachers do not know which type of AAC system is appropriate for a student, or they may not advance a student to a better system because of school administrative/appropriations issues.
Teachers may also implement a different system than the student uses at home, which is a mistake.
Some therapists hold back on providing AAC trying to “force” the child to talk. This is cruel and it must be ended. Any “therapy centre” taking this approach should be de-funded by our government.
There are also still preconceived notions that nonverbal people lack basic competencies, so nonverbal children who could thrive in a mainstream classroom with AAC are too often tracked into special education, with lifelong consequences.
Autistic children and adults may not have the type of AAC system that meets their needs, due to arbitrary guidelines based on age/years instead of changing development, needs and technologies.
- AAC access for all who need it, without delay.
- Education programs for healthcare providers, teachers and others in the community so that they can communicate directly with their patients/students/clients who use AAC.
- Base funding for new acquisitions on changing communication and developmental needs rather than an arbitrary “5-year” timeframe.
- If time-limit on AAC funding doesn’t change, allow families to use SSAH funds or other benefits to upgrade hardware or software when communication needs change.
- Train more SLPs that specialize in AAC.
- Teachers and other support workers need training to be effective AAC communication partners.
- Schools should not be introducing an AAC app at school that is different from the one being used at home.
- Provide consistency across the province in terms of SLP clinics: which age group they serve, who can refer, what the diagnosis is.
- Press the federal government to remove HST from iPads prescribed as a dedicated communication device, to improve access.
We hope our province will create a mandate for AAC access, and education to ensure that all people who work with students understand and respect AAC. If you would like to connect with any of our AAC-using members, or members of our parent auxiliary, please Contact us.