Lessons from the first ever PODD Course in SA
By Lisa Ellis
We recently had the privilege of hosting Gayle Porter for a 3 day PODD training course. Our team was exhilarated after the course for two reasons: firstly, having contact with a currently-practicing-&-publishing-international-AAC-implementation-expert (whew!) reinforced for us that the ideas we’re promoting locally are indeed in line with international best practice – and this feels important because South Africa can sometimes feel a little isolated, with many challenges unique to our country!
Secondly, the countless videos she showed us, of successful, autonomous communication being achieved by extremely complex individuals using PODD books, was really inspiring. That isn’t a word I use lightly, but it was really inspiring. Gayle told us about an individual with a list of diagnoses and complications as long as your arm, who would absolutely be amongst the most complex individuals you’d ever come across, and he too was managing to communicate autonomously.
This is an important word: autonomous. It refers to where the message being communicated originates. Does the person simply select from a few choices offered (essentially, originated) by their partners (which may or may not reflect the true intent of the person) or do they really manage to communicate what they want to say, to whoever they want, whenever they want to? As AAC interventionists, it is important to pay very careful attention to whether or not the communciation strategies being offered to somebody are meeting these criteria.
“Whoever they want to say it to…”
It is not sufficient to accept that communication is reliant on a few experienced partners. What if they aren’t there and there is something to say? What about being able to build new relationships and talk to a wider peer group? Having a system that can be understood by unfamiliar partners has a profound impact on the independence and social connectedness of AAC users.
“Whenever they want to say it…”
If communication options are only provided around a specific activity, and that vocabulary is removed thereafter, it removes the opportunity for sharing thoughts out of context, or for the ability to introduce a topic of conversation. AAC users remain more passive, only able to use the language that is provided in one situation, rather than any thought they may have liked to share. Having a way to request access to the communication system if it is out of reach, and being able to initiate communication with a partner is also important. So too, for some people, is the ability to communicate remotely, using technology. Having the option of using a high tech system, with symbols, that can also send emails and SMS’s is a very important ability in today’s socially connected world.
Although Gayle’s training was about PODD, the principles apply to any alternative communciation system. One of the most important things is to create an environment in which language is made available, its use is modelled consistently by the communication partners (you show use of that symbol, in order to teach its meaning through repetition, without necessarily expecting immediate use by the user), and any opportunity to use language, or expand on language and value the alternative method of communication, is seized.
Another important idea we took home from the course was the need to break down the learning steps even further for some people. Gayle’s team in Australia works with many kids with CP, and includes in AAC therapy time practicing the skills needed to transfer weight to one side, in order to lift up a hand to wave to indicate ‘I have something to say!’ (with that phrase nicely printed on a colourful wristband). They spend many group hours, simply practicing how to initiate being able to express something. They teach body awareness so that people learn to have a reliable yes and no head movement. They practice nodding. I tend to look at a person’s current level of ability and provide scaffolding technologies and strategies to meet the person where they currently are, and there is merit in that too, but it was very meaningful to watch the videos of people being taught to make those movements which enabled them to start expressing themselves.
If you work with children or adults who are non-verbal, who are not able to write or express themsleves in any other way, I would sincerely recommend that you Google some PODD videos, follow some PODD facebook pages (‘We Speak PODD’ is a good one), Google ‘Aided Language Stimulation’ and ‘AAC modelling’ to get an idea of how this excellent resource, or any other robust AAC system (lots and lots of words included!) can be implemented. And certainly when it comes to PODD, ‘I have something to say, I like it’!
Please get in touch if you’d like to know more about AAC options and the products or services we offer.