by Julia Wynne, MA, CCC-SLP (Speech-Language Pathologist); NWACS Contributor
This is the second in a series of research summaries that highlight the AACademic realm of the Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) world to give you easy AACces to the most current research in order to best serve the AAC users in our lives. Each month, I will continue to highlight hot topics in AAC Research in a way that will make for some more pleasurable reading.
When AAC learners are first starting out with a communication system, we frequently run into the problem of “I want the AAC user to have access to as much vocabulary as possible, but can they even see and make sense of all of those little icons?” If we make the icons larger, there are fewer words on the page and the AAC user can’t say as much as they would like. It can certainly be a tricky balancing act. This month’s article might help us out with this hurdle. It is on Motor Learning in typically developing preschoolers who are given communication displays. This paper will give us some valuable information to think about when we are deciding on the location and size of the icons on a communication device.
As always, I will start by providing the definition of some key terms. Please refer to these terms at any point while reading. I will then share the research question and why this information is important to know. I will follow that with the authors' conclusions and some important takeaways so that we can apply this research to our AAC learners. Let’s get started!
Consistent Display icons remained in the same location on the communication display for each trial
Hiding (Masking) covering a symbol so it cannot be seen
Location-Centered Display size and location of symbols stay the same as more icons are added
Motor Learning movement skills that become easier through repetition and result in changes in the brain
Size-Centered Display the size of symbols is determined by the number of symbols per page; the symbols are sized to fit the screen
Typically Developing children who reach developmental milestones when expected compared with other children of the same age
Variable Display icons switched locations on the communication display
The question asked in the article is: How quickly are typically developing pre-school age children able to select an icon on a communication display when the icon is placed in the same location versus different locations across presentations?
Let’s dive a little deeper and find out why this research question is important to us.
Researchers in this particular study were looking to see if making a display that supports motor learning (consistent location of icons) would reduce the amount of time needed to search for symbols visually. Using principles of motor learning when creating communication displays might do just that. That is to say, placing icons in consistent locations over time might make it easier for the AAC user to locate the icon. This is because the user develops a motor plan based on where the icon is located on a display. The user can then access the icon based on motor memory of where the icon is on the display instead of searching for the symbol each time. The average rate of aided communication is estimated to be 15 words per minute, so speeding things up for the AAC learner is certainly a top priority.
Let’s see what they found!
The findings of the research showed that all of the children who were presented with icons in consistent locations demonstrated improved response times. Some of the children who were given the changing array showed little improvement in response time. Overall, the children with a consistent display responded 3 seconds faster on average than those who had the changing display. This shows that motor learning came into play for the children who had a display with icons in the same location each time.
Of course, this is not the whole story. It is also important to think about the visual and motor skills of the child to decide on the size and spacing between symbols.
So, what can we learn from all of this?
There are two ways that communication displays can be designed that were described in the article: size-centered displays and location-centered displays.
On a size-centered display, the icons are sized to cover the entire screen. As more icons are added, the icons become smaller to fit the size of the display screen.
On a location-centered display, the size and location of symbols remain the same. There are placeholder spaces for symbols to be added as the AAC user learns more vocabulary. Location-centered displays are supported by the current research presented in this article (and others) and motor learning theory.
When designing communication displays, SLPs and families need to plan for the future, as well as meet the child’s current communication needs. Hiding or masking symbols that a learner is not yet ready for is an effective way to meet the needs of the learner. As new symbols are added, the location of the symbols that were already learned does not change. Therefore, for certain applications (e.g., Proloquo2Go), it is important to choose the grid size that will support the most icons that a learner will eventually be able to access. Buttons that the AAC user is not going to be learning to start can be hidden and slowly revealed as the learner progresses. This process supports motor planning by keeping symbol location consistent.
Of course, this study is the first of its kind in this area. More research in the area of motor learning in children with disabilities who use AAC is necessary to see if these individuals would respond the same as the participants in this study. However, this preliminary research is compelling in support of motor learning for AAC users and should be considered when designing AAC displays.
Please comment with any thoughts or questions!
Images include Boardmaker PCS. The Picture Communication Symbols ©1981–2018 by Mayer-Johnson LLC. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Used with permission.
[Proloquo2Go Grid Size Display]. (n.d.). Retrieved December 8, 2018, from https://itunes.apple.com/sg/app/proloquo2go/id308368164?mt=8
[Speak For Yourself Beginning Display]. (n.d.). Retrieved December 8, 2018, from https://www.speakforyourself.org/features/
[Speak For Yourself Full Display]. (n.d.). Retrieved December 8, 2018, from https://www.speakforyourself.org/features/
Thistle, J. J., Holmes, S. A., Horn, M. M., & Reum, A. M. (2018). Consistent Symbol Location Affects Motor Learning in Preschoolers Without Disabilities: Implications for Designing Augmentative and Alternative Communication Displays. Am J Speech Lang Pathol, 27(3), 1010-1017. doi: 10.1044/2018_AJSLP-17-0129 (https://ajslp.pubs.asha.org/article.aspx?articleid=2683778)
You can read other posts in our AACademics series by clicking HERE