Stop with the “Little Words” grab-bag in AAC

I have a proverbial bee in my bonnet today related to the sloppy way that some folks seem to think that designing an AAC system is just a matter of (a) collecting a list of words, (b) adding a set of pictures, and (c) sticking them on pages. This is errant nonsense, positively dangerous, and, after over 30 years of living in a world where AAC systems have been in operation, a sad indictment of how little we appear to have learned. Is that strong enough for yah?

An angry bee

Angry Bee

The number of popular press articles that have erupted in the past year or so about how the iPad can be magically used to provide “voices for the voiceless” is staggering. What’s more staggering is that you’d think nothing had ever been done prior to the iPad – as if Steve Jobs (all praise unto His name) invented AAC. Why, one article was positively gushing about how a doctor (it’s always a “doctor”) had invented a new program where he had a page of pictures that – gasp! – spoke recorded messages when you hit a key. Awesome! Who’d have thunk it? [1]

Those of us who’ve been in the field most of that 30 years have typically adopted the perspective of “well, this is raising the awareness of AAC to levels unknown” and “a rising tide raises all boats.” But are we so sure? Do we really think folks are getting some “better deal” because of the 100+ apps that are now available as “AAC solutions” – all of which claim to be The Answer, often supported by little more than some flashy words culled from linguistics and speech science, such as “core,” “morpheme,” “word,” “cognitive,” and, my favorite, “intuitive. Toss in lots of exclamation points [2], a YouTube video of some poor kiddo having their face thrust into an iPad, and bingo… AAC in a box! I hear the product “experts” at Best Buy and the Apple stores are now recommending AAC solutions based on their years of experience in the field. [3]

Which brings me to the topic of linguistic grab-bags as an excuse for avoiding thinking about teaching language.

There are several AAC offerings out there that use a folder/page/list labeled “Little Words.” This turns out to be shorthand for “I don’t really know where to put them so let’s toss ’em all in one bag.”

There is no particular rationale for these little words other than they are, well… little! And by “little” I mean have few letters. And by “few” I mean somewhere between one and five. So this effectively means we have a collection of words defined as “words with five letters or less.” That’s it. Where is the linguistic coherence here? Are we teaching language or not? If we ARE teaching language – and I’d like to think we are – then putting if, in, is, and it together as “little words” is so tragically far from useful as to be almost negligent.

If we’re OK with also having at, by, of, and be as little words, why not toss in ax, we and me? And once you allow a three-letter word to be classed as a “little word,” your box gets full to overflowing. I’ve seen the and that in the “little word” box, so I see no logical reason why bat, mat, bug, rug, bit, pit, sit, shy, cry ad nauseam shouldn’t be included.

Ah, someone might want to say, but we wouldn’t include bat, mat, bug, rug, and pit because they are THINGS and we can put those in a different folder/list/box. The good news is that now you’re starting to think linguistically, and I’m going to agree with you. But why only do half the job? Why not apply that thinking to your entire vocabulary set?

You see, if you only do half the job, you end up with your “little words” box containing all the words that you couldn’t fit somewhere else. It becomes the Island of Misfit words, a sad collection of poor little lexical orphans with nowhere else to go. [4]

The reality is that little words typically do have somewhere else to go. The trick is to decide where they go and to reflect that within the system you’re designing. In my original list, if can shack up with other conjunctions; in plays nice with other prepositions, is is a verb, and it can cuddle up comfortably with its close friends, the pronouns.

There is no need for “little words.” There is no need for “grab bags.” What there is is a need for rationale, intelligent, informed thinking based on what we know about language and what we’ve learned over the past 40+ years of AAC.

And shame on us if we don’t shout this out loudly for fear of being labelled reactionary, old-fashioned, out-of-touch, or plain wrong. If you’re claiming to have a “good” AAC app and you have a “little words” package, my question is simple…


[1] For the hard-of-thinking, let’s get one thing cleared up right now: My beef is not with the development of solutions for technology, whatever that technology may be. I’m all for it. Why, I have more technology in my room than Lindsay Lohan has rehab appointments. My beef is with poor, misleading, and “tossed-together-because-it-seems-easy” solutions. There are a some very good solutions to a range of speech and language problems out there – and that includes non-AAC offerings – but frankly, there’s more junk than substance. Catch me at a conference, buy me a drink, and I’ll name names and give you specifics, but I ain’t gonna get into an online slanging match with individuals. But you know who you are!

[2] I’m willing to bet that there is an inverse relationship between the number of exclamation points used in an article and its veracity (that’s “truthiness” for the Stephen Colbert fans.) When you see anything that includes such typography and words as “New!!” “Faster!!!!” or “Game Changing!!!!!” take a deep breath and move on. “Sober marketing” is an oxymoron and if something smell like a 3:00 a.m. infommercial, it probably is.

[3] If you’re skeptical of this claim, try this: go to your local Best Buy, grab a random blue-jacketed employee, and ask them to show you an iPad. Then ask them if it could be used with someone with a “speech problem” or even “autism.” See what happens.

[4] At this point, I have visions of a cartoon version of An Officer and a Gentleman with the Richard Gere character played by the word of, sobbing uncontrollably in front of a drill sergeant crying, “Don’t you do it! Don’t! You… I got nowhere else to go! I got nowhere else to g… I got nothin’ else.”

21 responses to “Stop with the “Little Words” grab-bag in AAC

  1. Magnificent article…glad you got stung today 🙂 I agree totally. However, I have concluded most people simply don’t think!

  2. Thanks for the thoughts: so, are we Guilty? I’d really love it if you’d read our response and clarify

  3. Gina @

    Love it, but what I love more is the fact that finally something is getting this industry outraged and fired up.

    I don’t care how many ‘shitty apps’ end up out there if it means that we will start seeing the inner mongrel coming in our SLTs/AAC profs and start sharing insights like this. I’m tired of watching this industry get trumped/slammed and disregarded by they medical profession & physical therapists and, in Australia, diluted by the medical side of speech therapy.

    AAC specialists need to get out their big girl or boy undies and start getting loud, staying mad and stepping up. In Australia the message is loud and clear that it is OK for a PWD to be without communication if the waiting lists mean you can’t get to them… ever.

    It’s an industry that has possibly been unwilling to share/teach others and maybe lacking in altruism – which has meant AAC is considered just for some, the lucky ones. It is also an industry that should have done much better in many areas… in Australia there is still NO alignment of AAC to any curriculum in the country and yet you say there’s been 40yrs of AAC… Braille would be a different story I’m sure!

    AAC needs to become an access issue… not an aspirational “therapy” goal. There’s not that many people out there writing braille apps or signing apps but there are with AAC… again I think it goes to the perception of the industry, the systems AAC/SLTs operate within and the fact it is an industry that should have been outraged long before now… and wasn’t.

    I’m happy you have a bee in your bonnet… and hope some of your peers join you and put their ‘ranty pants’ on too.

    Cheers and thanks…

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  5. Fabulous – thank-you! Great post.

  6. Fabulous – thank-you! Great post.

  7. Bravo! Here’s my latest advice to well-intentioned AAC app developers: Stay silent and use your own app for a day. Then take those experiences and let them inform a major revision before your launch.

    Ranty Pants, unite!


  8. Thanks to all of you who have commented up to now. Once again, no one is suggesting a neo-Luddite rebellion against technology, but being critical is actually a sensible approach for folks to take in situations where there is limited evidence of efficacy. This, in turn, isn’t meant to suggest there IS no efficacy but that we need always to be looking for sound ways of measuring change.

  9. Awesome! I’m fighting against a director who thinks that the iPad is the solution to all of the problems in the AAC world, and it’s driving me nuts!! I would guess it will end up as a variant of Moore’s Law as time passes… oh well. we can dream, can’t we?

  10. Great post and great observations about some of the AAC apps. I have had the experience of families/schools buying apps and iPads for AAC use without consulting a SLP and ulitmately the app was not the best AAC solution for the child. I think we need to spread more awareness that these new technologies are wonderful, however, we must not forget that they are best used when in consulation with trained professionals. I do agree that the “little words” catch all is not effective and I think many developers fall into that trap because it is difficult to create visual representations of those words. In my opinion, ability to create a concrete representation of the abstract is key to a functional AAC system. Honestly, any of us can take pictures of nouns around us, it is the represenation of the abstract that requires creativity and thought.

  11. So how would you deal with the ‘little words’? I didn’t see a solution to the problem you presented. I’m completely new to the AAC area but am willing to help with an open source/web-based offering, if you can provide some guidance as to an acceptable interface for a particular group (assuming there is not a one size fits all solution).

    • If you’re using a system that is based on regular English grammar (or regular grammar for any language), you can deal with “little words” by grouping them in the appropriate categories. For example, “in” and “on” are normally prepositions and so should be coded in the same category as “under,” “behind,” “between” and any other positional words. This then puts them in a semantically and grammatically appropriate group rather than an arbitrary “two letters or less” group.

      And why would you want to cluster these words together in the first place? Well, because they are all part of the natural group of “prepositions,” they behave in a similar way grammatically e.g. they can be used with verbs to create “phrasal verbs” or “prepositional verbs.”

      Same with “is” and “am,” which are verbs just like “have” and “do” so deserve to be included in the same set. Again, putting “is” with “in” makes no grammatical or semantic sense because they are fundamentally different words.

      As I’m already working on the creation and development of AAC apps, your kind offer to help with an interface is much appreciated but I’ve already addressed the issue as it relates to iconic interfaces by doing just what I suggested – grammatical class groupings. Nevertheless, I truly appreciate your commenting on this issue and hopefully you were able to take something useful away from this posting in relation to how language can be represented in an AAC system. Best wishes, Apophenikos!

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  13. My daughter is non verbal and uses a medical grade AAC device. It retails for $8-$10k. I paid exactly $0 for it thru the Katie Beckett deeming waiver and private insurance. Most are not so lucky. I now live in a state that doesn’t have the waiver and guess what? The kids don’t have devices. Also, AAC devices should not be controlled and doled out by the school. Who would let the school control who gets a wheelchair? I’ve seen schools give and take bad devices capriciously. Maliciously even to families who decide to homeschool.

    The iPad and its apps are less well developed, but for the money it gets something into the hands of a child. Something is better than nothing.

  14. Great post and I am trying to avoid what you are talking about. I am a mom to a six year old kid who has Down Syndrome. We have GO TALK NOW and I have “programmed “it. It works for what it is BUT I am trying to do what you are talking about. use core words etc. I need guidance on how to set up the pages/boards… Can you point me in a direction of some good boards I can copy or???
    Thank you!!!

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