Augmentative and Alternative Communication
According to the researchers, the term “complex communication needs” refers to any condition where people cannot meet their communication needs using only speech. Among children with complex communication needs, 70% have been diagnosed with developmental delay or autism spectrum disorder. For people with complex communication needs, AAC can facilitate more accurate and extensive communication.
AAC can include any device or technique that people use to support or replace speech. In recent years, tablets, such as iPads, and other technological advances have increased the set of AAC tools available, allowing children with complex communication needs to select icons or words on a screen or spell words that the device repeats aloud. These technological advances have greatly expanded the accessibility of communication aids for children with complex communication needs.
Good training with AAC can literally transform a child’s ability to communicate. Research has shown that, during preschool and early primary, access to AAC-based instruction is critical to supporting a child’s school participation, social development, and communication, and has an impact on his outcomes later in life.
The Racial Opportunity Divide
The researchers – conducted in collaboration with Amber Franklin, associate professor of speech pathology and audiology at the University of Miami – examined two waves of publicly available data on 78 children with complex communication needs. One wave was collected during preschool and another wave was collected two years later. At both times, teachers reported the amount of AAC-based instruction each student received per week. At the start of the study, 63% of white students received 90 minutes or more of AAC-based instruction each week. This level of education, however, was only reported for 29% of black students.
“Without access to AAC at an early age, children with complex communication needs have no effective way to communicate and are severely limited in their participation in education, family life and community activities,” said said Light, co-author of the article. “They are under threat in all aspects of development and are falling further and further behind their peers. Early teaching of AAC is essential for improving communication, strengthening language learning, increasing participation in daily activities, improving speech, and reducing challenging behaviors that occur when children are unable to communicate.
At the end of the study, the amount of AAC instruction the children received was even lower. Two years after they were first measured in preschool, 52% of white students received 90 minutes or more of AAC-based instruction each week. This level of education was only reported for 25% of black students.
Disturbingly, the researchers said, 75% of black children were receiving less than 60 minutes per week of AAC instruction by the end of the study. Previous research has shown that at least 60 minutes per week is needed to meet the needs of these students.
“It is widely accepted among researchers that racial disparities in educational opportunity, instruction and achievement are very common,” said Pope, who was the paper’s lead author. “It was not surprising that the same pattern emerged in the use of AAC. These data correspond to the trend that has been observed in the fields of education. That being so, we decided it was time to sound the alarm, so to speak.
A call for self-examination
The article provides specific recommendations for practitioners, administrators, researchers, pre-employment preparation programs, and professional organizations. Specifically, the researchers suggest that professionals who provide services to young students with complex communication needs, as well as the organizations that train them, check their programs to see if there is a racial imbalance in the services they provide. . An audit, according to the researchers, would not take much time or money, but it could help identify opportunities to improve the equity of services.
“Most speech pathologists and educators really want to serve all children equally,” Pope said. “Hopefully these findings inspire practitioners to examine their work to identify any racial discrepancies. Understanding if a problem exists is the first step towards fixing that problem.
Pope said the researchers wrote the article to raise awareness of racial inequalities in access to services for students who use AAC. The researchers said they believe that if professionals and organizations undertake these equity audits, it could be a step towards educational equity for all children, which could lead more children to clear communication and effective throughout their life.
This research was funded by the US Department of Education and the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research.