Here’s what you need to know when interacting with an AAC user

Jul 18, 2019

When Anita walked up to the bakery counter, she was greeted by 20 year old James who is on the autism spectrum. James helps run the bakery with his family and he communicates with the assistance of an AAC system. To Anita, who has never interacted with a user of an AAC system before, it seemed like a daunting process. She wanted to have a chat with James but many questions were running through her mind such as,”How can I make him comfortable during the conversation?”, “What do I say?”,“Will I understand?” etc.

There are many others like Anita who have similar questions when interacting with an AAC system user for the first time. While conversing with an AAC user is not very different, there are certain points you can keep in mind to ensure their comfort while having a meaningful interaction.

1. Communication requires effort, be patient while listening

Typing is slower than speaking. While a person speaks an average of 140-170 words a minute, the average person types a mere 38-40 words. Some AAC users experience mobility issues that hinder typing. Some users could take time to respond. Communication takes effort. Hence being patient and giving ample time to respond and listen is crucial in enabling them to feel understood, included and heard.

2. Communicate with the person, not the system

During interactions, make eye-contact with the AAC user instead of watching their system when the message is played. It takes time for the user to communicate their message by forming it first on the system and then activating speech. Hence AAC users use facial expressions and gestures after typing and while the final message is being played. Watching the user’s gestures and other non-verbal cues helps in understanding the conversation better and prevent misunderstandings.

3. Help manage noise

AAC users might find it difficult to communicate in a noisy environment such as a busy street, loud classroom, crowded cafe etc. Unlike human voices which can modify volume, pitch and tone for each word in a sentence; volume on an AAC system can’t fluctuate easily and might get drowned in the noise. Some users such as those on the autism spectrum, might be sensitive to loud noises. In such instances, one can aid communication by planning ahead and managing noise levels by shifting to a quieter setting. Switching to an electronic platform such as email or text messages can also be considered.

4. Take care not to dominate the conversation

A conversation is meant to be an exchange with both parties contributing. However, it can become easy to dominate the conversation as a non-user of AAC. Be patient as the user responds. Refrain from guessing words and interrupting mid-way to finish their lines. It is frustrating to be cut off mid-way when speaking and wrong guesses may make one feel misunderstood. Users on the autism spectrum may take time to respond, so avoid changing the topic without ensuring that they’ve finished conveying what they wanted. Lastly, when you don’t understand or get lost in the conversation, ask and clarify before moving ahead.

5. Don’t presume incompetence

An AAC user on the autism spectrum may take longer to process speech or may experience other challenges, but they can be more perceptive in other ways. Often users can understand what’s spoken but may have trouble expressing themselves. Engage in a sensitive manner and treat users age-appropriately by using an atypical tone of voice and not limiting conversations. Don’t assume incompetence and speak directly to the user instead of approaching their support person. Remember to ask before giving your assistance and let them tell you what may be useful.

6. Ask before touching their AAC system and respect screen-privacy

An AAC system is extremely personal to its user. Not only does it serve as a window to their communication with the rest of the world, but also is a window for the rest of the world to access their lives. It is their digital voice and contains private data such as message histories, personalized vocabulary, customized settings etcetera. Hence permission must be sought before touching or handling the user’s system.

The screen privacy of the user must be respected by not looking at their screen without consent. AAC users arrange their thoughts and construct messages on their system. They don’t get to view our thought process before we communicate and neither should we.

Is there anything else that should be kept in mind while communicating with an AAC user? Do share your thoughts and experiences in this regard in the comments below. We look forward to hearing from you!