Does your child ever communicate without using words? Multimodal communication is simply communication through “modes”. Multiwhata? What did you say? Some examples of modes may be verbal, pictures, gestures, sign language, etc. Multimodal communicators use more than one “mode” to communicate.
In the high technology world we live in, we use many modes of communicating daily. Next time you have a chance, ask your cell phone provider how many text messages you send per month. Sometimes, verbally communicating is not the easiest way for us to communicate. A quick, “I forgot eggs for my recipe, can you get them on the way home?” text message is much more efficient than a phone call. The same concept holds true for children who are struggling to speak verbally. Sometimes, other forms of communicating are more efficient at meeting their needs.
“Wait a minute”, you say to yourself. “I want my child to communicate verbally, I don’t want my therapist to stop working on that and I’m afraid if they use one of these ways to communicate they’ll stop wanting to talk”. That’s a common fear of parents, but let me tell you it is a myth. Study after study continues to show that utilizing varying ways to communicate does NOT (I repeat does NOT) hinder or interfere with the development of speech. So why is your therapist talking about introducing all of these non-verbal ways of communicating? Your therapist only wants to alleviate your child’s frustration. The goal of your speech therapist is giving your child a way to communicate their needs and wants in a more efficient way. By teaching your child more than one mode of communicating in a systematic way, you are giving them a greater opportunity to express themselves.
Signs: The use of specific hand gestures representing true words can help children to communicate what they want across environments. Signs are typically introduced first to children who are struggling to produce spoken language. Spoken words are a symbolic system, and when we speak we are exchanging “symbols” or words. This can help teach children how to exchange “symbols” or words in the absence of verbal language.
Visuals: Visuals are typically used for quick and easy communication for a specific purpose. For example, your therapist might introduce a YES or NO board to your child. This way, your child can easily communicate their response by pointing to their answer. Before your flags go off, this is a great way to teach the difference between yes and no before it can be used verbally. For children with difficulty communicating verbally, they often misuse the words yes or no. Some other quick visuals can be, “bathroom” or “break”. Another easy way to implement visuals at home is having pictures of items placed on or next to their corresponding real life representations. For example, in the kitchen have a picture of “food” posted on the refrigerator. These pictures are typically placed in an easily accessible place within a specific environment. These visuals can immediately alleviate frustration for children.
PECS: The Picture Exchange Communication System is form of communication where your child will exchange pictures for their desired items (hence the name). This is different from visuals. PECS is intended for use when communicating for a wide variety of items or actions and carried with the child across all environments. PECS is taught in many phases, by a trained PECS speech therapist, each one encouraging your child to become more and more independent with communicating. For children, this is often how they learn their communication and language is meaningful. Over time, this mode of communicating can alleviate frustration and teach children how to use communication to express themselves versus a meltdown.
Speech Generating Devices: These devices are typically in tablet form with a variety of “buttons” that have picture representations embedded within them. A child will then press their desired “button” for their desired object, and the device will produce the verbal output. There are many common misconceptions when talking about SGDs or assistive and augmentative communication devices. However, these devices that generate speech are specifically formatted for your child and can improve or increase verbal language output. Not only do these devices model language constantly, they can also continue to teach children how to use language.
I know that all of these alternative ways of communicating can seem overwhelming. Just remember, your child’s therapist is only trying to immediately alleviate the frustration your child feels in not being able to communicate needs and wants. It is okay for your child to use sign language and PECS, or visuals and an SGD, or any other combination of modes of communication. Studies show that when therapists introduce these modes of communicating early, children can increase vocalizations and improve overall speech abilities. Your child’s therapist will continue to model spoken word when using multimodal communication. Remember, spoken word will still be the target and utilized when teaching and using these alternative modes of communication.