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Home > Continuum of Communication Independence > Emerging Communication

Emerging Communication

What is "Emerging" Communication?

You might think that an "emerging communicator" is an individual who is just getting started with AAC. That is close, but I want to make an important distinction between different beginners.

First, the exceptional "beginner" with AAC. These are the people who are "beginners" but they are able to communicate as soon as they are given the means. Think of a teen who is intubated after a spinal cord injury or an adult with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). They only need to be given a WAY to communicate.

The more common "beginner" is someone who is able to communicate very little, for example a young child with severe motor impairments. These children rely entirely on non-symbolic communication methods, such as pointing, gestures, facial expressions, body language and intonation. They may be learning alternative communication, but the results are inconsistent so far.

So, a definition....

    An "Emerging" communicator does not have a RELIABLE method of EXPRESSIVE communication through SYMBOLIC language.

Note the words in capital letters above; they have special significance:

RELIABLE communication means that the individual is able to communicate what he/she intends to communicate; there are no accidental selections that result in unintended messages. Reliability is crucial to independence.

EXPRESSIVE communication is emphasized because this model is based on OBSERVABLE communication behaviors: how an individual uses symbolic language. It is not based on how well he or she understands language, something that may or may not be known for emerging communicators.

SYMBOLIC LANGUAGE does NOT mean just using visual symbols. Instead, it means using something to REPRESENT or SYMBOLIZE a concept, idea or thought. For example, sounds symbolize meaning in our speech while letters and words represent meaning in our writing, and in AAC we use symbols you can hear, see or feel. Symbolic language permits us to talk beyond the "here and now" about things in another time or place. In contrast, non-symbolic communication is limited to the "here and now," for example, using pointing and gestures to respond to what one sees, hears or feels in the immediate environment.

(Note: everyone uses non-symbolic communication methods such as gestures and pointing. The important point here is that "emerging" communicators are limited to those methods only.)

So, let me restate the definition.

    Communication is "Emerging" when the individual...

    does not have a RELIABLE method of EXPRESSIVE communication through SYMBOLIC language

What does "emerging" communication look like?

What might limit someone to only "emerging" communication skills?

  1. Device doesn't match motor capabilities, so unreliable.
  2. Hidden hearing impairment
  3. Hidden vision impairment
  4. Low expectations of other people, so no AAC trials.
  5. Lack of opportunities to communicate
  6. Lack of AAC services
  7. Belief in unreliable methods of communication

Typically, the individual relies on the following AAC techniques:

  • non-symbolic communication strategies such as gestures, body language, facial expressions and familiar partners to figure out what is meant by these signals.
  • perhaps a way to signal "acceptance" (e.g. a smile, or reaching for something) and "rejection" (e.g. head turn away, pushing away, etc.) but the individual does not have a reliable method of answering other yes/no questions.
  • Trials of AAC strategies or devices may or may not be happening, but performance is still inconsistent.

Does "emerging" communication = cognitive deficits?

The short answer is "no, no, no and no"! Emerging communication means only that the individual does not have a reliable means of symbolic communication. There could be many reasons (see box to the right) that have nothing to do with cognition. Furthermore, it is impossible to test the cognition (or the receptive language) of an individual with severe motor impairments who is a non-speaker. Nonverbal tests cannot be used because there is no hand control, and verbal tests cannot be used because there is no reliable communication beyond pointing and gesturing. There are MANY stories of accomplished AAC users who were declared severely "mentally retarded" until someone provided them with a means of communication.

Navigation Note: You have a choice now, you can view case examples of emerging communicators, or you can continue learning about the model, with Context-Dependent Communication. Be sure to do both eventually.

View Case Examples of Emerging Communication
Continue on with the model: Context-Dependent Communication