Announcement News and Events

ATIA 2024 – A Fantastic Learning Experience!

Written by Nicole Deary, AT Specialist, EASTCONN

My colleague and I recently attended the Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) conference in Florida, and we are thrilled to share our experience. The event was a treasure trove of information, providing valuable insights into the latest advancements in technology designed to support individuals with communication disorders and other disabilities. The conference showcased a diverse range of products and solutions that left us impressed and excited about the possibilities in our field.

One of the highlights was attending the comprehensive sessions that delved into the practical applications of various assistive technologies. These sessions covered everything from augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices to innovative apps and software designed to enhance communication skills. The presenters were experts in their respective fields, offering in-depth knowledge and practical tips that we can now integrate into our practice.

The exhibit hall was a bustling hub of activity, with numerous vendors showcasing their latest products. It was a delight to explore the myriad of options available, each catering to different needs and preferences. From cutting-edge AAC devices with customizable features to user-friendly apps that promote language development, the diversity of assistive technology was truly impressive.

Engaging with the vendors provided us with a hands-on experience, allowing us to better understand each product’s functionality and potential benefits. Additionally, networking with professionals from various disciplines, as well as from our own home state of Connecticut, opened up opportunities for collaboration and knowledge exchange. The vendor exhibit was not only a feast for our mind but also for the taste buds, as attendees were treated to delicious hot pretzels and refreshing ice cream, creating a delightful atmosphere for networking and informal conversations.

Overall, the conference was a fantastic learning experience, and we left feeling invigorated and inspired by the vast potential of assistive technology. The event not only deepened our understanding of the available tools but also reinforced the importance of staying abreast of technological advancements to better serve individuals with communication disorders. We are eager to incorporate our newfound knowledge into our practice and contribute to the continued advancement of assistive technology in our field.

News and Events Resource

Communicating the SAME Message

By Linsey Zanchetti, SCSU Student

My name is Linsey Zanchetti and I am a graduate level student completing my 6th year certification in Assistive Technology at Southern Connecticut State University. This summer, I am completing an independent study with the guidance of Dr. Lauren Tucker, targeting core language approach and modeling with augmentative or alternative communication (AAC) devices for parents and for paraprofessionals. Individuals who are complex communicators may utilize an AAC device in order to improve their functional communication. The success of the introduction and implementation of an AAC system for an individual involves a collaborative teamwork approach (Goldbart & Marshall, 2004; Karlsson, Johnston, & Barket, 2017; Brock, Seamn, & Downing, 2017). This team includes paraprofessionals who are involved in the daily activities of individuals who use AAC devices within the schools and families who are providing natural modeling opportunities within the home. While many parents frequently feel overwhelmed with novel AAC devices, paraprofessionals also experience minimal training which impacts their use of the device within the school setting for school-aged children.

This summer I am planning to conduct two separate training sessions—one for families via Zoom and one for paraprofessionals in person at a special education school in Orange, CT. The focus on the training is to provide a research-based introduction to explain the benefits of using a core language approach with AAC and then explain the best way to model language with an AAC device. Core vocabulary is a set of words consisting of verbs, adjectives, pronouns, articles and conjunctions that make up approximately 80% of what we say. Conversely fringe vocabulary is vocabulary that is specific to an individual or a situation and makes up approximately 20% of what we say. Utilizing a core vocabulary approach helps to allow an individual who uses AAC devices to communicate more efficiently particularly when they are using direct selection to access their device.

Individuals who utilize a multi-modal approach to communicate, including using an AAC device, rarely have the opportunity to see the same modeling when they are beginning to communicate. Modeling intervention strategies have shown significant improvements in the language output for individuals who use AAC devices, however, it is important to identify specific strategies used by various communication partner when developing training programs. Researchers have found that allowing children the opportunity to access and use the device in multiple setting while modeling the use of that device is a key instructional strategy (Campbell, Milbourne, Dugan, & Wilcox 2006; Briggs Carter, & Gilson, 2019). Using communication partners to model the communication through the use of the AAC device is a unique way to allow the communication partner to use the AAC system to model expressive language within natural interactions (Sennott, Light, McNaughton, 2016).

The trainings will provide a brief background on AAC, core vocabulary, and modeling. Participants will then interact to brainstorm communication opportunities within their daily routines. For example, communication temptations will be described and video examples will be provided to promote integration into daily routines. A communication temptation is when an adult sets up the environment to tempt the individual to communicate. For example, during snack time providing only a small amount of the desired snack, requiring them to ask for more. After participants brainstorm opportunities to integrate core vocabulary and communication opportunities, modeling will close the presentations. To facilitate the adoption of modeling, I have created an acronym to help families and paraprofessionals remember key aspects of modeling: SAME (See/Slow, Always, Model, Expand). This simplified model is derived from other approaches in the field (Kent-Walsh & McNaughton, 2009) and redesigned to be more accessible to families. See/Slow emphasizes making sure that the individual is looking at what you are doing when you are modeling with the device. Always focuses on having AAC available all the time and integrating it in an as many opportunities as possible. Model without expectations: making statements, describing things, and restating messages. Finally, expand your model approximately 1-2 words above their use. The goal of SAME is to develop a mnemonic to easily integrate AAC into the home and school routine. Following the Zoom trainings, families and instructional professionals will have the opportunity to attend a follow-up, open-ended training session to answer any questions and to provide ongoing support.

Our goal is to build confidence in families and paraprofessionals to model the language and to help individuals who are complex communicators be exposed to using core language and their AAC devices in all opportunities. We want to build the confidence in order to reduce the abandonment rates for families when introducing AAC devices and to help support the communication partners to be as successful as possible. When school-aged children are introduced to these types of devices, providing adequate training and support to the educators and paraprofessional working with them throughout the school day is vital for the success of the system.

AT Success Stories News and Events

Interview between Ann Bedard, M.S., CCC-SLP and Kevin Williams, Prentke AAC Distinguished Lecture at ATIA 2021

How were you chosen to give the Edwin and Esther Prentke Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) Distinguished Lecture at ATIA?

Kevin WilliamsI was nominated by Celeste Helling, a Charlotte based SLP who works at the North Carolina Assistive Technology Program (NCATP). Celeste submitted a written nomination to the review committee for the lecture. The review committee chose me from the pool of nominees they had this year. It wasn’t much to do on my end as Celeste knows most of my history, because she has helped me get my AAC devices since I moved to North Carolina from Ohio. There was just a quick e-mail exchange asking for my consent to be nominated, my topic for the lecture, and a 5-minute video of me speaking in order to demonstrate I could answer questions spontaneously after I completed my talk.

What could other PWUAAC (People who use AAC) learn from your journey?

I hope that people learn that each person’s journey to communicate is unique to them, and the journey is hard work for everyone. Yes, I have a love and talent for using technology, but I also put in the time to learn my communication system outside therapy sessions and time with my family. Being raised by a single mother putting herself through school, I saw and learned to always appreciate the help but strive for independence with a strong determination. A person will know what I am trying to communicate by any means necessary.

I’m always trying to figure out how to increase consistency for the AAC user and it’s often hard to figure out where the breakdown is. How did it work out so well in your case?

I know SLPs love having everyone “buy-in” to AAC, but I think you are looking at it from the wrong direction. The only person that needs to “buy-in” into the AAC strategies is the augmented communicator. Parents, teachers, and friends that the Augmented Communicator encounters rarely care or really grasp the nuts and bolts about the new strategies learned in therapy. They just want to reap the results of the application of the strategy in communication. The “buy-in” for them is having the patience to listen, keep the system running, and keep the system available to the communicator at all times. Any other things are done in therapy.

To use a sports analogy comparing it to basketball: in a training session, a player and trainer work on playing skills like footwork and form on their jump shot. The player and trainer can get excited over the strategies to improve skills on the court. Other players, who are peers on the court, may notice and have interest in the drills the player does to improve skills on the court. But coaches and family members may concentrate on the results of applying those skills to make plays and score. They may not know or care about the drills. Yet if the player “buys into” the drills, they will then be successful.

My mom didn’t know any Bliss (symbols set) when I was little, nor did any of my family or friends. They just read the labels. Yet my SLP worked on an advanced Bliss while I was in therapy sessions. My friends and family don’t know Minspesk, and still they support me 100% just by talking to me. I still finger spell and use my natural voice to communicate with close family and friends. Yet I can easily use my device when in public.

Look at how the person augments their communication strategies in therapy, in class, or at home. Can the person employ a strategy to say something more effectively?

How did you come up with the term “augmented communicator” and why is it better than the alternatives?

I came up with the term Augmented Communicator myself. I believe through hard work and a level of mastery in the methods we use to communicate, it actually changes (“augments”) how we communicate or at least how we approach communicating. Optimizing our approach to fit our methods, makes people better communicators.

Looking at the use of the phrase as a tool for advocacy, all of my assistive technology, wheelchair and AAC Devices are just extensions of my identity as a disabled person. The phrase Augmented Communicator is used in the spirit of the identity-first language model in order for the communication disability to be seen as a limitation put on by surrounding society rather than something to overcome with the aid of technology.

The goal is not to be seen separate from my Assistive Technology. The goal is to see my assistive technology as just how I speak, walk, cook or whatever I use it for to accomplish success in my daily life. My assistive technology is an essential part of me and how I interact with the world. It goes everywhere I do, and it can’t be turned off or put away (e.g. in a bag, or on a shelf) at any time I need to interact. The label, Augmented Communicator, captures all of that in two words and allows people to take ownership of their communication. Anybody can be a person who uses AAC, but not everyone can be an Augmented Communicator without putting in the work, or that’s at least how I feel.

Like any label, Augmented Communicator is no better or worse than any other label. They are a personal choice of how we perceive ourselves and how we organize things to make sense from a particular perspective. Not everyone will agree with my perspective, but having the ability to put it into words for people to disagree with is something to savor.

AT Success Stories News and Events

Lending Library Brings a Voice to Transition Student

by EASTCONN’s Ann Bedard, M.S., CCC-SLP, Assistive Technology Specialist/ Speech-Language Pathologist

Chris using TouchChat appThe TouchChat app was recently trialed through EASTCONN’s AT Lending Library by Chris, a transition-age student with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Several AAC options were ruled-out prior to Chris’s device trials, after matching specific software design features to his abilities and needs. For example, Chris had demonstrated his ability to make requests to meet his needs and he had a large, receptive vocabulary. Yet, he was often impatient, so he benefited from automatic navigation and grammar guidance to produce full sentences quickly. Trials began with Chris observing the examiner using an 8-inch dynamic display, speech-generating device (SGD) with synthesized voice-output running research-based AAC software, called TouchChat. TouchChat is designed and manufactured by Saltillo for individuals who need efficient access to a robust vocabulary with a mix of single words, phrases and complete sentences. It is an app for iOS only, not Android devices. Chris’s support coach said he needed the smaller size of the 8-inch iPad, as compared to his current, 10-inch SGD. Chris enjoyed using the custom messages in the About Me page to express how he liked ketchup and other favorites. He quickly demonstrated the ability to imitate a model, and even learned to sequence three buttons independently to express, “I want to play music.” As a result of Chris successfully trialing several assistive technologies and devices, his school district could determine which device would best meet his needs.

AT Success Stories News and Events

“Alexa, Can You Help Me Access My Environment”

Written by JoAnne Lambert, M.S. CCC/SLP, EASTCONN

Accessibility. Independence.  Important for all, but especially important for individuals with disabilities who use Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC).  Through a grant obtained by the Eastford School District, two Amazon Alexa Smart Speakers were purchased for use by a student who uses an AAC device to aid in communication.  Through the use of voice-command technology, an AAC user is able to create a message or a question and “ask” the smart speaker using the command word “Alexa.”  For individuals who have difficulty accessing information by traditional means or accessing their environment due to a variety of disabilities, this type of technology can provide the opportunity to be more independent!

Student using her AAC device to access Alexa In order to determine how we were going to implement the device at different opportunities throughout the student’s day, the educational team looked at what the student’s typical day looked like as well as her individualized educational programming.  It was decided that we would start with the following commands; “Alexa, what’s the weather in (town).”  This would allow the student to report the weather to the class during morning meeting.  “Alexa, set a timer for (time)” and “Alexa stop the timer”—this would allow the student to set a timer while completing cooking tasks as well as while performing various other life skills activities where a time limit or a simple reminder is needed.  “Alexa, play music by (preferred music artist)” would allow the student to engage with her peers socially and enjoy the leisure activity of listening to music.  Finally, “Alexa, play calming sounds” to allow the student access to self-calming techniques rather than relying on an adult to anticipate and initiate the calming strategy.  The student’s AAC tool (iPad mini with TouchChat HD-AAC app running MultiChat 15 Student vocabulary), which already contained a folder to access voice command, was customized to meet the communication needs.

AAC screen shot of Amazon Alexa voice command options.

Through use of the Amazon Alexa paired with the student’s AAC Device, the student is able to participate in a variety of activities including engaging with her peers during social opportunities to play preferred music.  She provides an up-to-the-minute weather report so the students can plan on their outerwear or umbrella needs, and can independently set the time when the class engages in baking goodies! As we move forward, we will continue to expand the use of Alexa skills across the student’s day. The possibilities for access to information and environmental control and increasing independence are certainly exciting!

AT Success Stories News and Events

AT Legend Carolann Cormier Will Retire

Written by Nicole Natale, MS, CCC-SLP, ATP, Senior Education Specialist, CREC Resource Group

Carolann CormierFor the past 36+ years, Carolann Cormier has worked as a speech-language pathologist (SLP) and an expert in assistive technology (AT) and augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) throughout the state of Connecticut. Since 1995, Carolann’s career has spanned many different work environments, including public schools, summer camps, the Department of Developmental Services (DDS), children’s hospitals, colleges and the Capitol Region Education Council (CREC). Carolann has presented nationwide, has also published numerous professional articles and written a guide to AT for students with Autism. She has also accomplished so much professionally, having earned a variety of advanced degrees and certifications. However, Carolann’s professional success is far greater than the sum of its parts: It’s her positive influence on students and families that is the true mark of her personal and professional legacy.

There are many professionals and families that can attest to the positive impact Carolann has had on their lives. Anne Selavka story encapsulates this positive impact succinctly.

Anne has twin boys, one of whom – Greg – was born with significant support needs and also had complex communication needs. As Greg was aging out of birth-to-three, Anne received a report from a professional that indicated Greg would never speak or be able to use assistive technology. Anne was referred to a local children’s hospital where she met Carolann. Like Anne and her family, Carolann refused to believe the report and focused instead on Greg’s potential. Since then, Carolann has not only been a tireless advocate for Greg, but a member of his family. Carolann could easily see Greg’s potential and has worked with Greg and his teams throughout the years to help support him. Anne credits Carolann with “opening up Greg’s world.”  Anne says that Greg’s ability to communicate with his family and friends, to bake, to access his community and to experience a positive quality of life can all be attributed to Carolann’s unshakeable advocacy. Carolann helped to give Greg and his family hope that he would reach his potential, even when times were bleak. Greg is 28 years old now, and even though Carolann has not worked with him and his family in a professional capacity for years, her relationship with them has continued, as has her advocacy. Anne wonders where they would be today if Carolann hadn’t come into their lives, and considers they are “lucky to have found her.”

Carolann and Greg

The Selavka’s story is just one of many. From Carolann’s direct work with students and families, to her trainings of professionals to build their capacity in AT, to her workshops and to her thoughtful late-night email responses to colleagues, the impact of Carolann’s work on the lives of people with disabilities is immeasurable. When asked why she went into the field of AT, Carolann said that she had met so many people who could not use speech to communicate and desperately wanted to help them because she knew that they could communicate in some way. She was thrilled to be a part of what was then the emerging field of AAC because it brought communication to people who previously could not communicate. Carolann says the most rewarding part of her career has been when she “sees the light bulb go on” in her students. There is nothing better than seeing a student with learning disabilities or with complex communication needs, successfully communicate with a new AT device. “Their look of accomplishment” has driven Carolann’s resolve to pursue solutions because her students’ success is her greatest reward.

While Carolann plans to continue working part-time, she will be officially retiring at the end of the 2019/2020 school year. Please join CREC and the CTTAP community to congratulate Carolann on her illustrious career, and thank her for her tireless dedication, passion and advocacy for students with disabilities and their families. Carolann, you are irreplaceable and will be sorely missed.