By: Kathy Smith, MSPA, CCC-SLP/L (retired)
AAC Spotlight is a series of interviews that we hope will be another resource. Reading about other people who are interested in AAC (augmentative-alternative communication) can help us connect with each other and share experiences and concerns. NWACS will occasionally interview people to help all of us learn more about each other and AAC.
In the Spotlight: Jennifer Thistle, PhD, CCC-SLP
Our next interview is with someone who is a recent addition to our region and AAC community. Dr. Jennifer Thistle is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Western Washington University.
I understand you are a professor in speech pathology at Western Washington University. What classes do you teach?
I teach both undergraduate and graduate courses, some are at both levels.
I teach normal language development at the undergraduate level. I teach preschool and school age language disorders at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. I will be teaching graduate level courses in phonology and augmentative and alternative communication.
Of all those classes, what are you favorites to teach?
Of all of those, my two favorites are normal language development and AAC.
What did you do before coming to Western Washington University?
My most recent background was as an assistant professor at U. of Wisconsin at Eau Claire, Wisconsin. That is where I went after getting my PhD at Penn State. After getting my Master's Degree at Emerson College in the Boston area, I worked with school age children in self-contained classrooms.
At Penn State did you work with Janice Light?
Yes, Janice Light was one of my mentors. As you can imagine, I felt privileged to be able to learn from her.
What got you interested in AAC?
My first clinical experience during my Master's program was working with an adult who had cerebral palsy. I worked with him on both the technical side of updating his communication notebook and on language and communication, helping him to develop strategies to repair communication breakdowns, especially with unfamiliar partners. We went into the community at one point to practice asking for help at a drug store where he couldn't find something. I found I liked both aspects; the human communication side but also digging into developing the most effective tools possible for him. From there on most everything I did clinically had some element of AAC.
Is there as aspect in the area of AAC that you are particularly interested in? Tell us more about it.
Yes, I'm most interested in thinking about how we can make AAC as effective as possible. I call AAC a tool. It is a means to an end and I am interested in how we can make the tool as effective as possible. My research is focused on design aspects. Specifically what I am exploring is the effectiveness of using background color on symbols for young kids. Are kids faster creating multi-symbol messages when there is a background color cue or no color cue? Certainly the tool is not the only thing that matters, but that is my present focus. More broadly, I am interested in determining how we can design an AAC display that is easy to learn and use. Then the individual using it can focus her energy on learning how to communicate instead of learning how to use the system.
What do you see as the biggest challenge(s) of educating new clinicians regarding AAC?
I have a couple of different answers. I see two big challenges and they may sound contradictory. Let me explain. One of the challenges is to convince a new clinician that once you have narrowed down the basic system features that a child needs, the technology is not the priority. That is coming from the belief that AAC is a tool and we can teach the child how to use the tool. I find it challenging to convince the clinicians that the actual system you select, as long as it is one the child can physically use, then, beyond that, the important step is teaching the child the language and communication skills.
The other challenge I see, and this might sound contradictory, is keeping up with technology. In order to be sure there is a good feature match that meets the child's needs and is the best system for the child, the clinicians need to know the systems that are available and the systems' capabilities. But still, most importantly the technology is in the context of knowing how to teach functional usage.
So my goal for my students in my AAC class is that they will walk out of my class buying into the idea that there is no such thing as AAC intervention. There is language intervention and you use AAC as a mode of communication. My secondary goal for new clinicians is to know how to find the resources. I teach about access and resources, such as Jane Farrell's blog that includes a chart with all the different AAC apps and what their features are. Also, I teach students about the Assistive Technology Act and that every state has loaner devices listed on its website [Washington Assistive Technology Act Program]. I teach them how to find regional representatives for dedicated devices, etc. because it is the resources they need to know about in order to stay on top of the technology.
Thank you, Dr. Thistle, for taking the time to be interviewed! NWACS is delighted you have joined the AAC community here in the state of Washington.
You can read our other posts in our AAC Spotlight series by clicking HERE.
Do you have a suggestion of someone you would like to see us interview for AAC Spotlight? Let us know in a comment below or send us an email.