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Modes of Communication

young male student using a tablet computer

When we think of communicating, we often think about talking to each other but even when we talk with others, we use other means of communicating. We know that students with ASD have difficulties with communication. Some students with ASD are able to talk very fluently but still have difficulties with other nonverbal behaviors. Others may not speak, but can still communicate effectively.

It is important that all students can communicate effectively. Because of this, it is likely that students will need to use a multi-modal approach to communication. This means that students will likely need to use more than one mode of communication to be an effective communicator. People without ASD are primarily verbal speakers but we still use nonverbal behaviors such as facial expressions and gestures. Students with ASD may do this too or may need to use a picture exchange system along with some sign language. Or, a student may use an assistive technology device but still uses some picture exchange.

Case Study: Amelia

Amelia is a middle school student with ASD. She has been receiving special education services since she was in elementary school which has included speech therapy. Amelia has made good progress but she still struggles with communication. Even though she is verbal, it is difficult for unfamiliar people to understand her. In elementary school, that wasn't too much of a problem because everyone was familiar with Amelia. However, now that she has entered middle school, she has multiple teachers in a school day and has to interact with more people who don't necessarily know her well. Her parents are concerned because Amelia seems to be talking less now too.

Modes of Communication

There are multiple modalities in which a student might communicate and as we plan for communication in students with ASD, we need to remember that it is unlikely one system will meet all the needs of a student. For example, if a student has an assistive technology device, what happens when the batteries die? Or, if they use picture exchange, what happens if they don't have a picture for what they want to say? If sign language is their primary mode of communication, what happens if they want to communicate with someone who doesn't know sign? These are all questions that need to be considered and warrant a discussion about in addition to their primary mode of communication, what kind of backup system will the student use?

No one mode of communication will work for every student with ASD so it is important for educators to be familiar with the various modes and to individualize the mode so that it fits the student's individual needs. As a teacher, it is important to not only know what to teach the student in terms of communication but to teach them how to communicate through an appropriate mode of communication. Below you will see a chart with different options for modes of communication:

Mode of Communication Description Examples
Speech (Verbal) Spoken language using words, phrases, and/or sentences to communicate. Saying hello, asking a question verbally, commenting
Sign Language A language system that uses hands, fingers, and facial expressions to communicate. American Sign Language, sign approximations
Picture Exchange A language system that uses pictures which are exchanged with the communicative partner to communicate. Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)
Speech Generating Device A device that uses technology such as a computer generated voice to communicate. Go Talk, iPad, Dynavox Maestro, Tango, iTalk2, Accent
Behavior Engaging in actions that communicate. Crying, hitting another student, screaming, biting, gesturing, pointing, taking an item
Eye Gaze Using eyes and the direction of eye gaze to communicate. Looking at something that you want; looking at someone you want to avoid
Gestures / Pointing Using hands and fingers to point or indicate communication Pointing at something you want; waving your hands back and forth to indicate you don't want something
Facial Expressions Changing the mouth, eyes, and other features of the face to communicate. Smiling; frowning; having a disgusted look on your face

As the educational team considers the appropriate mode of communication for a student with ASD, it is important to include parents and family members as well as the student whenever possible. Additionally, you will want to ensure that the communication system is effective and efficient for the student to use. It is not unusual for students with ASD to use multiple modalities to communicate. Thus, it is important for the team to be familiar with assistive technology or Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC).

Case Study: Amelia

The educational team decided they needed to meet to consider the challenges Amelia displays. During the meeting, the team expresses their concerns about Amelia's communication. Amelia is at the meeting as well and does share that she doesn't like talking with her new teachers because it is exhausting to have to repeat herself so much. The team decides they want to do some brainstorming about other ways that might help Amelia communicate more effectively and efficiently.

After doing some screening and assessments, the team decides that Amelia should continue to use her verbal abilities but that they are going to support her by having her learn to use an assistive technology device. The device allows Amelia to type her words and then the device will speak what she wants to say. Again, the team wants her to still use verbal speech when she is comfortable, but the purpose of adding the device is that it gives Amelia a backup option if people can't understand her.

Amelia, who already knew how to type, learned to use the device pretty quickly and now she communicates much more frequently with her teachers and her peers. She says that she will still say a lot of things but when it is hard for her to get her words out or people are really struggling to understand her, she can now use her device to help her communicate effectively!


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