What’s your name? What’s your favorite color? What’s your favorite animal? These are all question that we can easily answer. Can I have a drink? Can we get food? Can we go play? These are all questions we can easily ask. The average student can ask and answer these questions using their communication skills such as speaking or signing. For a student with severe disabilities, these question may not be so easy to ask or answer due to them being non-verbal, as well as having multiple disabilities both physically and cognitively.
There are various strategies to use to teach communication skills to students with severe disabilities, including both non-tech and tech strategies.
There is a great importance on teaching communication skills to students with severe disabilities. Communication can be described as ““the transmission of thoughts or feelings from the mind of a speaker to the mind of a listener”” (Brown, McDonnell, & Snell, 2016, 404). These skills are crucial to the development of students, and by teaching students these skills can promote the acquisition of positive social skills (Browder, Ribuffo, Thompson, & Wood, 2014).
In order to teach communication skills, first you must understand the features and types of communication that can be used. Pre-intentional and intentional communication are a feature of communication that need to be understood. Pre-international communication are unlearned behavior and reflexes that people can interpret, while intentional communication are intended to have an effect on a person such as pointing to a picture (Browder, Ribuffo, Thompson, & Wood, 2014). This being said, there are also various forms that are used when communicating such as verbal modes, facial expressions, physical position, conventional gestures, and sign language or a sign system (Brown, McDonnell, & Snell, 2016). Having different modes of communication allows you to us alternate communication, which could be no-tech, light-tech, and high-tech (Brown, McDonnell, & Snell, 2016). A no-tech example could be a symbol board that students point to a picture of what they would like to say, whereas a light tech could be a go talk device that allows students to press a button that has a prerecorded response. In addition, a high-tech example could be an eye-gaze system where a student can look at an electronic device and it will speak the word that the student is looking at. These alternate communications are extremely beneficial in helping students with severe disabilities gain communication skills.
There are various ways you can help increase the communication skills for students with severe disabilities that have research to back it up such as Functional Communication training and Communication requests. Functional communication training is a strategy that can be used to replace unwanted behaviors with socially acceptable behaviors that mean the same commutative function (Bakken, Pinto, & Simpson, 2009). A study was conducted: the study being there were “signs for five specific activities were taught as requests and one sign was taught as a protest. Three purposes were identified for their investigation:
This study was proven to increase the communication skills of students with severe disabilities. Wherein conclusion proved that the students were able to use the device in new situations without prompts, while also showing that the communication devices help decrease unwanted behaviors while increase communication skills (Bakken, Pinto, & Simpson, 2009). In addition to Functional communication training, Picture Exchange Communication System is also a way to increase the communication skills of students with severe disabilities. The Picture Exchange Communication System gave students pictures that teachers would incorporate into their lessons, hang throughout the classroom, in addition to every student having their own symbol at hand. There were various steps taken with in this study, these steps being; “basic exchange, distance and persistence, discrimination, sentence building, and PECS with peers” (Bakken, Pinto, & Simpson, 2009, 104). Instructors would assist students in using the pictures, as well as encouraging the students to use this system in all settings. The study was conducted with 31 participants, suggesting “that visual supports, specifically picture communication symbols, are more effective in prompting the generalization and maintenance of acquired skills for following verbal directions for young children with autism” (Bakken, Pinto, & Simpson, 2009, 105). Both of these strategies are very good in terms of helping students increase their communication skills.
Teachers, instructors, and paraprofessionals must have knowledge about all the communication modes and strategies because what may work for one student may not work for another. Therefore, each instructor must be able to implement and assist the student correctly with the strategy that is thought to work best for them. These instructors must also work with everyone on the student’s study team to make sure everyone understands the form of communication they are working on in order to make sure the student will be able to use the new strategy in other settings. Teachers must also realize “the teaching of speech, language and communication skills to children with ASD is based on the behaviorism perspective that teachers can shape the learning directions and behaviors of these children by manipulating the external stimuli to elicit the desired learning outcomes” (Lee, & Low, 2011, 20).