Presume Competence – An AAC Mantra

Nov 20, 2014

I received a heart-warming email today from a mother whose two sons, both with autism, have been using Avaz for nearly a year now. Her email had one detail in particular which will probably remain with me for a very long time. She spoke about her elder son — let’s call him Harry — who is seven years old, non-verbal, with sensory issues and delays in fine-motor and gross-motor skills. Harry hardly initiates speech, so his mother was often left wondering what he was thinking about. But a couple years back, she and Harry’s speech therapist made an astounding discovery. They realized that Harry had taught himself to read, and he is now able to communicate — autonomously and, to a large degree, independently — by using Avaz.

Harry’s mom went on to write about all the wonderful instances where he’d used Avaz to astound his family, his therapist, and his baby-sitters. But I think the most important takeaway from this email is a validation of an AAC guideline that we may have heard about but don’t put into practice often enough. And that’s the advice to presume competence. Presuming competence is so important that I think it deserves to be called an AAC mantra. And it’s probably a good idea for you to repeat this mantra to yourself five times before you start your day with a child: “I must presume competence. I must presume competence.”

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Simply put, presuming competence means that even though we do not get a window into a non-verbal child’s mind as easily as we do with verbal children, we must, nonetheless, assume that he or she is as intelligent, capable, and competent as a typically developing child — and we must fine-tune our interaction with each of them accordingly. This has ramifications in every aspect of caring for a child with disabilities. From an AAC perspective, it means giving them access to a vocabulary that is as large (or even slightly larger) than what a typical child of their age would have. I recently showed Avaz to a therapist who looked at the vocabulary and said, “Oh, I think this is too complicated for the kids I work with!” I asked her how old they were, and she said 6–9. I wanted to grab her by the shoulder and shake her, shouting, “Presume competence! Presume competence!” (I regret that I did not.)

“I had someone ask me recently how best to explain to their seven-year-old son with autism that his grandmother had passed away. I advised them to do it in exactly the same way as they would explain it to a typical seven-year-old. Presume competence! “

Why would we start a child off with a vocabulary that seems ‘too advanced’ for them to express themselves with? Well, it’s because it’s important that we don’t confuse how adept the child is at manipulating their AAC device or chart and their cognitive/expressive/receptive skills. Remember that by the age of four, a child has heard an average of 30 million words1. 30 million! That’s an unimaginably large number, and we should not be surprised if a significant number of those words have made it into a child’s receptive vocabulary. By giving them access to an AAC vocabulary that is vastly beyond their current expressive skills (but probably commensurate with the vocabulary that they recognize), we’re putting the power to learn and use words as they best want to into their hands.

Presuming competence goes beyond AAC to all walks of life. I had someone ask me recently how best to explain to their seven-year-old son with autism that his grandmother had passed away. I advised them to do it in exactly the same way as they would explain it to a typical seven-year-old. Presume competence! It will not help the child if you dumb down or oversimplify the explanation just because you think he won’t be able to understand you. Perhaps, he may not be able to understand everything you say. Yes, you may have to repeat yourself a few times, modeling on an AAC device as you explain. But ask yourself this — if he does understand — wouldn’t you be doing him a huge disservice by not using the opportunity to talk to him about something truly important in life? And even if he doesn’t understand, you are probably contributing to his receptive skills and intelligence by talking to him at the level of his age rather than the level of his disability.

Presuming competence isn’t just common-sense and common courtesy; it’s also commonly accepted by AAC researchers. Rosie Crossley, Director of the Anne McDonald Center in Australia and one of AAC’s leading lights, writes2 that, “anyone working with people with autism without functional speech should consider the possibility that their observed impairments could be accounted for by neuro-motor and sensory impairments, rather than an all-encompassing cognitive malfunction.” Pat Mirenda, who wrote the book on AAC and autism, is even more insistent about presuming competence. She says3, “I think we need to question what we think we know about people with ASD [and particularly non-verbal people] … there is a growing body of science that suggests that we might have gotten it wrong, at least some of the time, for some individuals. I think that it is not okay to get it wrong for even one person; when we talk about communication, we are talking about peoples’ lives, no less than that — so there really are no degrees of freedom. If we get it wrong, if we miss the boat — people drown.”

It’s true. Many of us underestimate the intellect of people whom we cannot communicate effectively with, and nowhere more poignantly so than in the case of children with complex communication needs. And that’s why it’s worth repeating this mantra to ourselves every time we prepare for an interaction with a child whose future may depend on our (often incorrect) perception of their capabilities: Presume competence. Always.

(Avaz Lite is available as a free download! )

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3. Mirenda, P., A Back Door Approach to Autism and AAC – Augment Altern Commun. 2008;24(3):220-34