As a speech-language pathologist focusing on augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) for nearly 20 years, I worked with all ages and a variety of complex communication needs. This broad experience helped give me perspective on how communication changes over the life span, specifically in the transition from school to adulthood.
I think it’s important to understand and anticipate future communication needs of our clients. How does communication change after transitioning from school age to adulthood?
Goals. For school-based SLPs, many treatment targets focus on specific curriculum and other academic goals. Although students use core vocabulary in many contexts, it’s important to consider how communication goals change as a child gets older and enters adulthood. Many day programs for young adults with autism or other complex communication needs focus on functional and vocational skills.
Of course, SLPs want to help clients carry over communication into different contexts, so this change of needs alters how we approach treatment. Some clients will also move from an IEP to an Individual Service Plan (ISP). We can use an ISP to set new goals. For example, if a client is working on independently preparing a meal, we can focus on the vocabulary and steps within the process during our sessions.
Communication partners. This is one of the most crucial ways communication changes over the life span. Communication partners for people under the age of 21 mostly include family members, teachers, therapists and peers. When they graduate and enter adulthood, many communication partners change. Now our clients might need to communicate with staff from their day program or group home, employers or potential romantic partners.
How does this affect communication? In so many ways! As educators and SLPs, we know how to communicate with people with complex communication needs. However, staff from day programs might not receive this type of exposure or training. I recommend advocating—or even offering—staff training for those you know will interact with your clients. Effective communication becomes more difficult for AAC users if communication partners lack support and understanding.
Level of support. For most clients with complex communication needs, the support system can completely change once they transition. Most of our children with AAC receive multiple services including speech-language treatment and occupational and physical therapy. As they transition into a day program, these services might be reduced or even eliminated. Keeping needed services in place for adults is something else we can add to our client advocacy list!. Learning does not stop at 18 or 21.
Funding. Funding changes because school districts no longer fund services or devices. This is especially challenging for those using school-owned devices. Many families return their communication systems to the school district with no backup device or plan in place. I start the process of getting a speech-generating device through the client’s funding source approximately a year before graduation. This ensures a smooth transition to their communication system.
Context and schedule. For young adults with autism, a major change in surroundings and schedule can overwhelm them. In addition, many day programs might not offer visual supports. Find out if this is the case with your clients’ new programs. We need to research the new situation and settings for those with sensory issues—such as a sensitivity to noise or light—and/or anxiety. We can help by preparing families in desensitization strategies for their children. We can also help by creating schedule boards for the day program to use.
As SLPs, we’re key in helping people using AAC transition from high school to young adulthood. We can work with the families, future communication partners and local day programs.
Please share your own strategies and insights on this challenging transition in the comment section below.
Becca Eisenberg, MS, CCC-SLP, is currently an AAC consultant on the tech team at Westchester Institute for Human Development. She also teaches at Columbia University’s Teachers College, writes children’s books and created a blog, called Gravity Bread, for parents of children with special needs. Since 2001, she’s worked with both children and adults with complex communication needs in a variety of settings including schools, day habilitation programs, home care and clinics. Eisenberg is also an affiliate of ASHA Special Interest Group 12, Augmentative and Alternative Communication. firstname.lastname@example.org