What Makes a Good Communication System…Part 4

Previously, I mentioned the need for a way to say no, the need to be able to report abuse, and the need to be able to be inappropriate.  For this post, which I think will be the final post in this series, I want to talk about the value of babble.

A close-up of a magnifying glass with a blury background that may be a desk

Magnifying Glass by Auntie P (Flickr), Licensed CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Since I wrote JTalk years ago, I’ve talked to many users and parents about how my text-to-speech software was and is used.  Very few people use it as I thought they would.  Instead, I’ve heard some neat stories about how the software is making people’s lives better in ways I wouldn’t have predicted.  One of the more common usage is to connect meaning, sound, and writing.

It’s a conceptual leap to realize that symbols can have meaning, whether those symbols are letters on a piece of paper or sounds made by someone’s vocal cords.  Once that leap is made, however, people typically want to explore the symbols, their relationships, how to write them, and how to say them.

With the users of JTalk, there were three things I heard multiple people doing:

  • Typing repetitive “gibberish” and having the computer speak it
  • Typing something to communicate, listening to the computer speak it, then repeating the words vocally
  • Typing words to hear and then “practicing” alone, having the computer speak the word and then speaking it vocally

The first of these, typing repetitive “gibberish” and then having the computer speak it, consisted of something like typing long strings of a single letter (“TTTTTTTTTTTTTTTT….”) and then hitting speak.  Or it might consist of a repetitive sound, like “Wowowowowowowowowowowowowowowowo…”  In effect, these might be seen as stims (they are repetitive, and that can be calming or grounding).  But I think more may be at play here, at least some of the time.  Just as a neurotypical starts with vocal language by babbling and making nonsense sounds, some autistic people may do the same when they come to language late.  Further, this type of sound play is linking a symbol to a sound (“what does ‘wo’ sound like?”).  In effect, it’s teaching a person that these sounds can be strung together in ways that produce desired output – something people who speak do every day.

Of course I won’t ignore or dismiss the value of it just from a stim standpoint!  But it is more than that for some people.  Unfortunately, this type of sound play can also be annoying or distracting to others.  Certainly there are times and places where it is inappropriate, but it’s important to ensure that there is a time and place where it is appropriate!  There’s real learning and language development here for some people (and for others, it’s just plain calming to have control and assurance of what comes next).

Other people might type something and then hit speak, listening carefully to what is said.  Then, they can repeat the words using their own voice.  I don’t do this so I don’t know for sure what people’s motivations are, but it seems as if it gives people confidence and a reference point to anchor their own speech.  They can hear the words and know what they sound like (they may already, but this will give extra confidence).  Regardless of the reason people do it, this seems to give people the confidence they need to initiate and respond to others verbally, when they would have remained silent otherwise.  So despite the apparent repetitive nature of this, it’s a good thing!

Yet others practice words in private.  In effect, it’s a way of people learning literacy, albeit backwards from how most neurotypicals learn it.  Most neurotypicals learn audible language first, then written language.  So they may need occasional help to connect the symbols on paper to sounds they already know.  Some autistic people do better in writing, so they may have a much larger written than spoken vocabulary (I’m one of these people).  They may know a many words that they can read and write, but can’t speak.  What better way than to have a non-judgemental and infinitely-patient device pronounce the word, as often as you need it, as repetitively as you need it, to get a handle on the word?

I suppose these things have less to do with the construction of a communication system than the uses that a system has.  But they are vital – it’s important a person with any communication system (including the standard vocal system!) gets a chance to play with sound and symbols, to develop the connections and confidence they need to communicate.  It’s also interesting that these types of activities are sometimes complained about by parents – particularly strings of “nonsense” sounds being emitted from a device.  It seems some people expect someone to take a new means of communicating and instantly speak deep thoughts eloquently to everyone.  Few people do that!  Most of us need to learn to use our communication tools, which involves a lot of just plain tinkering with voice, symbols, sounds, etc.

These activites fascinate me in another way, too.  I wrote JTalk for people who wouldn’t speak in some situations – yet I see people using JTalk (and other devices/software) so that they can speak more!  A common concern parents and others have when a person uses some speech is given alternatives to speech is that allowing someone to type (or gesture, symbol, write, etc) when they can talk will remove incentive for speaking from the person.  Quite the opposite seems to be the case – in many cases it seems having the speech device or system encourages people to speak more!  Trust me, as a part-time speaker, I’ll speak when I can speak and communicate my thoughts clearly.  Why wouldn’t I?  Unless it’s painful or difficult at the time (which means I probably wouldn’t communicate at all without alternatives), or completely inaccessible, speech is just plain easier and quicker.  It’s naturally self-reinforcing.  I don’t need communication alternatives removed to grasp this!  And, for me, having alternatives handy means I’m more willing to stretch myself and speak more – since I do have something to fall back onto for an emergency.  I don’t need to preserve speech energy for emergencies that rarely occur!

All this said, there’s a lot to designing communication systems, and a lot to understanding how they are used.  I’m not an expert on this, although I have a lot of experience personally with my communication needs.  I encourage people to learn more, both from users of speech alternatives, from family of users, and from clinicians.  There’s a lot more to this than just my opinions.

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