Augmentative Communication Aids & Assistive Technology in Sensory Storytelling

A Guest Blog by Pete Wells

Assistive technology is, or should be, the backbone of practice in any special-needs classroom. As sensory storytellers, inclusive practitioners, and above all human beings, giving our story explorers old and young as much independence as possible should be paramount in our list of priorities. I would like to use this fabulous blog to hopefully give some inspiration, examples of good practice and help you liven up your storytelling sessions with some exciting techno wizardry! Onward!

Tools of the Trade

What flavour is your BIGmack?

The humble BIGmac, or single switch communicator, has been utilised in special-needs classrooms for decades – and quite rightly so! These handy communication devices can be used for anything from saying “Good morning!” or “Thank you!” to helping make a choice, playing sounds of the seaside or even allowing you blow a giant raspberry in the face of your (least) favourite headteacher!

Generally, a single switch communicator would be used to add a good old aural prop to your story, be it a seagull’s squawk stolen from or YouTube, the sound of crying (great for autistic learners who may be exploring emotions) or even having a piece of music on command. Literally anything! The fact that you can find ANY sound online, means that the Single Switch Communicator is an invaluable piece of kit, and for a great many of our story explorers, pressing them is absolutely irresistible too!

As well as providing us with stupendously stimulating aural stimuli, these devices are also excellent for helping us practice those all important cause and effect skills. Those words get bandied about extremely frequently, but let’s have a little think about what they mean before we discuss devices – particularly to some of our young people…

At the risk of over simplifying, cause and effect is super important for helping our learners make sense of the world, “Cor! If I do this, then this thing happens!” However, that is an extremely complex statement with all kinds of variables wobbling about within it. To understand this, the learner needs some kind of proprioceptive understanding of themselves. Proprioception is concerned with knowing where your body is in space and understanding that that flappy, meaty limb is part of ‘you,’ and you may be able to control it. That itself can be a fundamental leap of development, then adding the external ‘effect’ of moving that limb is another leap of logic entirely. So please keep this in mind when working with your Story Explorers!

Back to devices! The danger for the humble BIGmack, is that it has become a victim of its own success. Just as everyone calls the vacuum cleaner a ‘Hoover,’ single switch communicators have all become BIGmacks. So naturally when it comes to schools ordering their shiny new single switch communicators, many will order a BIGmack and severely limit what they can achieve in their classrooms – please don’t!!!

For a few pounds more, practitioners should think about buying a ‘BIG Step by Step’ with Levels.’ This looks identical to a BIGmack, but offers an awful lot more in terms of functionality and adaptability. So let’s break it down – the ‘BIG’ naturally refers to its size, we have a fabulously large area for our story explorers to target. The ‘Step by Step’ means that you can record a bunch of sequential messages; this could be “One”, “Two” then “Three!” or the lines of a song, or even the lines of a story, giving you the power to enable almost any story explorer to become the greatest storyteller in the world!

Finally, the ‘Levels’ part of the name means that you can store multiple sequences on different tracks – which you change by sliding a little switch on the side of the device, so on track number one you may have your cheery “Good morning!” message followed by your good morning song. On level two you may have recorded that bagpipes track for the current Sensory Story you’re telling, and the lines of your story if you’re making your story explorers the storytellers. This could leave track three clear to be whatever you need it to be, particularly noises from your story explorers, which I’ll chat about later…

So there we have it, though the BIG Step by Step may cost a few extra pennies, you can see it is doing the job of multiple BIGmacks all at the same time. So the next time your poor overworked ICT coordinator or SaLT is ordering single switch communicators, do think on!

Going beyond a Big M… erm, I mean a single switch communicator!

If your story Explorers are at the level of using assistive technology to help with formal choosing, then you may need a communication device that has more than one button. Another staple of my classroom has been that ‘italk2.’ Similar in design to all other switch based aids, this handy device has two buttons on it, to which we can add symbol based choices with the help of a switch cap.

So this handy little switch allows your story explorers to make binary choices. This could be “Yes!” or “No!,” it could be a bark or a meow, tea or coffee, true or false, happy or sad or whatever else you wish to convey in your story (and beyond!) This is great for adding choices to your stories (and all the best Sensory Stories should have an element of choice) or even a way of introducing formal comprehension if you want to pretend that you’re a real teacher!

Beyond this, if you really want to bamboozle your story Explorers with choice, you can try the “GoTalk“ series.

These are very old now, and some would argue obsolete, but handy if your organisation has some lying around. These communication aids come in lots of different flavours, depending on how many choices you wish to offer. The GoTalk 2 is similar to the afore mentioned ‘italk2,’ having two choices whereas the Gotalk4 has four choices, the GoTalk 8 has eight and so on all the way up to 20. As I said, these are old hat now and there are apps that do the job much better, but they are a good start if my story explorers are moving on to a formal communication aid.

Vocalising aka ‘Being the star of the show!’

Just a little note on getting your story pre-verbal explorers to vocalise; the golden rule is that the noise they make is sacrosanct! If you’re after a neighing of a horse and you get a breathy “Pop” from your story explorer, then that’s the sound the horse in your story makes! If the fierce growl of a dragon end up sounding like “Mamamamama,” then that is the noise of a dragon! It is always important to respect the vocalisations of your story explorers and to try and enhance their self-esteem. One day those preverbal vocalisations may well become more meaningful vocalisations, so let’s encourage any noise they make!

Using multimedia software and assistive technology to tell our stories

Congratulations if you’ve made it this far!

As mentioned above, switches that can store sequences are great for enabling our story explorers to become the storytellers. A quick press of the button and they can deliver whatever grotty line you’ve written. However, we can go well beyond this! For decades now, I have been partial to using simple presentation software such as PowerPoint or Keynote to make an animated, visual and aural representation of the story.