There are several different AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) strategies: non-tech such as sign language, low-tech such as PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) using simple physical boards, and high-tech using digital PECS and digital audio output also known as Speech Generating Devices (SGD). Any method of communication outside of typical speech can be classified as AAC. This is a great field of study for anyone teaching a nonverbal student.
But what does this look like for a typical US public school classroom pre and post covid? I asked a sixth grade public school teacher (who would like to keep her opinions anonymous) and this is what she said:
Could a nonverbal student receive a general population learning experience?
"Yes, but pre covid I will say my class was over populated with 30-35 kids per teacher and switching my communication method for one student would not be ideal. If the student needed a sign language interpreter (and the county had one available for that student) then the student could remain in the classroom. We try to do least restrictive environment, which would be for the student to remain in the classroom as much as possible. If resources won't allow it, then we have a special needs classroom where students can have more direct access to language aids."
Do you think there is a general issue with resources?
"Unfortunately, yes. Classrooms nationwide are just over populated. I think 20+ kids to one teacher for 8th grade and below is too many. Highschool is a different ball game where students are expected to be a bit more mature but younger grade students very much need close to 1-on-1 support. It can be difficult for a typically functioning person to get the attention they need, much less a person with different needs."
How have things changed since COVID?
"In some ways, COVID has really helped parents to see how their children learn, which will make them better advocates. Other parents have found services outside of school that are helping. If a child only needs sign language then I think virtually learning isn't as much of a hinderance. Actually, having our faces so clearly in front of the student helps with reading lips, as well, and the school has access to more ASL interpreters because we can expand our reach virtually. But this changes when considering students who use PECS or have mental disabilities."
"Well, virtually learning is not great for individualized learning. Teacher can't help students stay focused, or provide tactical reinforcements, which are really critical for some learners. We rely on parents during this time but we recognize that parents are not certified teachers and this is hard for them too. Virtualized learning for the special needs community has been rough. But I think that it highlights a big gap in the education system. Virtualized learning for special needs is not impossible, but there needs to be more research done so we can do it in the best way and be TRAINED on it before we're given two weeks to implement it. And training for everyone, teachers and families."
You are so right, training is key! I really do hope we learn from this experience and make better advancements for the whole community. Thank you so much for your time!