Assistive Technology for Nonverbal Students

Instructor: Elizabeth Diehl

Elizabeth studied to be a special education teacher at Regis University, and received her masters in 2014.

Students who are functionally nonverbal bring some challenges, yet many rewards, to the general education classroom. This lesson will explore some important terms and offer strategies to assist you as you prepare for a nonverbal student with assistive technology.

Understanding 'Nonverbal' Students

The term 'nonverbal' can be misleading, since many students with this designation are able to speak words or sounds, but they need extra support to effectively communicate. An example might be a student who is on the autism spectrum--this student may be able to repeat words but cannot ask for a drink of water.

In many special education circles, students with expressive communication difficulties are often referred to as augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) users, which are students who express themselves using forms other than speech. This term encapsulates the experiences many functionally nonverbal students face, since their deficit is in the ability to effectively communicate.

Assistive Technology for AAC Users

AAC can be anything that helps a person express themselves. AAC systems can be broken into two categories--unaided communication systems and aided communication systems. Unaided communication systems are any body language and gestures, such as American Sign Language, that a person can use to communicate.

An example of a communication system using small symbols.
communication board

Aided communication systems include anything else a student might use to communicate, including pictures, communication boards, and devices with voice software. For example, some students use computers with eye tracking technology to select words and communicate. ACC systems are forms of assistive technology. What each student uses will depend on their individual needs. Here are some strategies you can implement so that your classroom is AAC-ready.

Collaborate with Specialists

As you would with any student with an Individualized Education Program, review your nonverbal student's IEP for background about the student's diagnosis and communication goals. After all, there are many reasons a student might be an AAC user, from physical disabilities like cerebral palsy to disorders like autism. Then, meet with the student's special education teacher, speech-language pathologist, and educational aide. Ask for ways the student can contribute in your classroom, and determine how you can help create an environment that will help the student communicate.

There will be a wide range of possible scenarios. Perhaps the student needs to be near a plug to charge the device, or the glare from the overhead lights might hinder the student's ability to read the device's screen. Ask about how the student's assistive technology works, as well as any limitations the student might have in communicating. Meeting with these experts will give you a better sense of how ACC users can still participate in your class.

Train on the Technology

It's essential to advocate for training on the assistive technology that your students might be using. Often, AAC users are also learning how to use their technology, and as students grow in proficiency, they may also advance to a more complex technology. So, you'll need to be familiar with the technology in order to assist them and help troubleshoot when problems arise.

Say, for example, a teacher is discussing the life cycle of a butterfly. She knows there's a whole page of words relating to insects, including butterflies, on the student's communication device. She can help him find that page so he can participate in the class discussion.

For students who use pictures or symbols to communicate, ask to be shown how that system works. When possible, observe how the educational aide or other specialists engage with the student so that you get a better understanding of how the student uses the system of communication.

Pause for Answers

A big adjustment for teachers is learning to allow time for the nonverbal student to respond among a class full of verbal students. For many nonverbal students, it takes several seconds to process what someone asked them, formulate a response, and then find the corresponding button or spell out the word on the device. The delay will vary based on each individual's abilities and how difficult the question was for them.

If appropriate, consider asking that some responses be pre-programmed into the student's device. This way, the student will be ready to participate without having to fumble for the right words. For example, if you start the morning with a greeting, you student can respond with a greeting that's been pre-programmed into the device. The precious interaction time would not be wasted trying to find the appropriate page or screen.

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