Driving Lessons and AAC

As my son, Gregg, approached the date when he could apply for his learner’s permit (prerequisite to getting a driver’s license), he became keenly interested in the prospect of driving, and I noticed him watching my every move as I drove him to band practice and soccer games.  On the day he received his permit, I drove him to an empty parking lot, let him take the driver’s seat, and handed him the keys.  The car had an automatic transmission, so I really expected that he would simply turn the key and go.  After all, he had been watching adults drive for 16 years, most intently over the past few months.  Instead, after adjusting the seat and mirrors, he just sat there, key in hand, and said, “OK, now what do I do?”  I could see the questions in his eyes:  “With the key in the ignition, so I step on the brake? the gas pedal?  Do I leave it in ‘park’ or shift to ‘neutral’?  How far do I turn the key? And for how long?”  Watching me drive had not been enough.  Watching did not give him the motor plan, the sequence, or the feel of starting up the car, let alone making it go.  He didn’t want to make a mistake, and so he sat, waiting for explicit step-by-step instructions.  And here was another surprise:  I had to stop and think about how to explain this simple first step.  For me, starting the car was so automatic that it took a conscious effort and even simulating the movements myself to be able to instruct him.  And this was just to get the car started.  The act of driving had to be similarly broken down into small steps and practiced a lot over the next few weeks, before he was ready to take the car on the road.  Maybe “ready” isn’t the right word, as I recall the look of semi-panic in his eyes and the pounding of my heart as we left the safety of  now-familiar parking lot, but it was the next step and we needed to take it.  With practice, we both relaxed and he became a competent driver.  True, there were a number of literal and figurative “bumps in the road,” but his motivation to drive (and my motivation to surrender my role as “Mom’s Taxi Service”) carried us through.

As I later reflected on this experience, I realized that there are strong parallels to providing a student with an AAC device.  Yes, the student has heard conversation all his life, and has interacted with symbols through PECS or on a communication board, so it is a natural assumption on the part of adults in his life that providing this new “vehicle” for communication will, in very short order, make the student a competent communicator.  But it IS a new vehicle, and learning to use it may take a lot of time and effort.  The student needs to learn the cause/effect relationship of the symbols to the spoken message.  The student needs to be able to find the symbols, which takes cognitive mapping if the device has dynamic display.  The student needs to learn syntax, if linking symbols to create a sentence. A motor plan needs to be established before automaticity can occur (and this can be thwarted when the adult programming the device keeps rearranging the display). And, for a student who heard conversation but never participated in one beyond answering questions like “what do you want to eat?” or “what is the weather today?,” he must also learn the social conventions of initiating, commenting, sharing information, asking follow-up questions, and terminating. Like Gregg as he learned to drive the car, our new AAC students have many steps to master.  And like me as I started teaching Gregg to drive, the instructional staff and parents will need to reflect on how THEY communicate so that they can provide patient, step-by-step instruction and many opportunities to practice at increasingly challenging levels. And here’s an important break from the “learning to drive” analogy:  Gregg was learning to drive the same car that I drove.  Our AAC users are learning to communicate in a way that no one else in their environment does.  This would be like Gregg watching me drive a car for 16 years, then I hand him the keys to a helicopter.  If I don’t know how to fly a helicopter, how can I teach him? And how much would his experience as a passenger in a car help him?  It is critical for our AAC users to SEE others use the new AAC system competently in order for them to learn and, obviously, this requires the adults to become competent.  If we are fumbling around with the device, how can we expect the student to do any better?

Two years after Gregg got his driver’s license, he wanted to purchase his first car.  He saw how much money he could save by buying a car with a manual transmission, so that’s what he bought, not realizing that he would again need to learn a new set of skills.  Back to the empty parking lot we went, and I’ll never forget the look on his face when he starting bucking the car all over the lot.  A bit of panic, shock, and a look of seriously regretting his decision came over him as he attempted to master a new motor pattern of controlling the gas, clutch, and gear shift.  It took time and patience (and a bit of whiplash), but he was finally back on the road, driving smoothly and negotiating challenges like a pro.  (Although, our house is on a busy road on a hill, and  I did notice for a while that he always approached our driveway coming down the hill — no matter where he was coming from — so he wouldn’t have to hold the car coming up the hill if opposing traffic forced him to a stop).  How similar is this experience to taking a student from one AAC device to another, more complex device?  In the long run, how much easier would learning to drive have been for Gregg if we had started in a manual transmission car?  Isn’t this a good argument for  starting at a higher challenge level with an AAC device, rather than introducing a lower level device, then moving up to one that is more complex?   In my experience, the “keys” to driving aren’t so very different from learning to cruise along with AAC.

Are you getting started in AAC?  Here are some great resources to guide you:

PrAACticalAAC.org: Getting Started posts

Dynvox AAC Myths Revealed handouts for SLP, teachers, and parents who are new to AAC

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