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Having a conversation with an AAC user

Talking with an AAC user for the first time can seem a daunting process. Thoughts such as "Will I understand them?", "Will they understand me?", "What will I do if it all goes wrong?" are all too common.

The suggestions below have been written by AAC users, to help you relax and enjoy a conversation with them.

The Situation

  • If possible choose to communicate in a quiet environment with minimal background noise so you can concentrate on the conversation.
  • Face the person you are talking with - we all find it easier to communicate naturally when we can pick up visual clues like body language, gesture and facial expressions.
  • Everyone communicates in a different way - this is exactly the same for an AAC user. Start off by asking if there is anything specific that they need to help them be successful in your interaction.

Starting Off

Before you start a conversation be aware that however brief the interaction you will need more time than you would with a speaking person. Be prepared to give that time.

  • When you ask a question please wait for a reply.
  • A good start to the conversation boosts everyone's confidence. Make eye contact and speak with an AAC user, not their assistant.
  • If you have never listened to an AAC user before in a conversation, then do let them know - they will be patient and assist you the best they can.
  • Start with concrete subjects such as the current situation you are both in.
  • Keeping your own utterances short and simple helps the AAC user and gives them chance to speak, but do avoid just asking questions which require 'yes' and 'no' answers as this quickly becomes boring for everyone.
  • It is tempting to speed up communication by finishing off the person's sentence for them. Avoid this as, all too often, it is where misunderstandings start.

Developing Conversations

  • Take the time to make sure you have understood the AAC user correctly by rephrasing their response.
  • Because the pace of interaction is slower it helps to introduce one topic of conversation at a time.
  • Be clear when you are changing the topic; the user may lose subtle clues from your face as they look down to their system.
  • It is much harder for an AAC user to interject into a conversation. They will appreciate it if you make time and invite questions, rather than expect them to question.
  • Asking questions is important in conversation, but be aware that there are different types of questions. It is good to structure a conversation by only asking one question at a time. Questions starting with 'who', 'what', 'where', 'when', 'why', 'how' and 'if' will elicit a more detailed response; it is usually worth waiting for the answer.

Repairing Misunderstandings

Misunderstandings happen all the time in normal conversation. We all use little phrases like "Hang on a minute did you say...". AAC users cannot use these easily. It really helps if you watch their face and if you see confusion check they have understood. Don't be afraid to ask "Did you mean ..." or "Could you say that again?".

If you get really lost, check out three things: Who are we talking about? What situation are we talking about? When did the situation being talked about take place: in the present, past or future?

Ending Conversations

  • When the flow of conversation is interrupted or slow, it can feel like hard work. This can lead to fatigue and loss of concentration. This is more likely to happen to you than the the AAC user; they are used to conversations being this way. It is perfectly acceptable to ask them for a break, but if the conversation has not been completed then it is only polite to say you will return to finish it.
  • Equally, some AAC users find using their system tiring and need a break too before the conversation is finished. If you sense they are getting tired, then it helps to suggest a break.
  • Most of us start to end conversations using non-verbal clues, looking away, fidgeting, etc. Remember the AAC user may not see these clues as they are looking down at their system. They are not missing cues; it is simply that they can't see them. It can be helpful to warn them that you need to move on or have to go. It is also courteous to check they have had their say before you do end the conversation.

Last Thoughts

We hope we have given you some thoughts and insights into communicating with AAC users. As with all new ways of communicating, practice makes perfect. The more you engage with AAC users, the better you will become. Remember that AAC users want to talk to you; they understand how you feel and will help you all they can.