There are so many great things about my job right now, but one of them is that I get to be right in there...right on the ground...right knee-to-knee doing the speech thing with some kids with really interesting communication needs. Many times that involves some alternative methods to support communication - in other words, not just talking! This often involves some form of pictures, and even though this is pretty speechy stuff, I would like to share some thoughts on this topic.
When I went to school back in the mid 90s, we learned about what to do when people couldn't speak. You could try signing with them. And then if that didn't work, try boardmaker pictures with them, or if that was too hard, you used printed photographs, or if they couldn't do that, you could use actual objects. It was called a symbol assessment.
There was a day that Mayer Johnson's Boardmaker program was what Everyone used for symbols. Pretty much exclusively. They were revolutionary really. They found a way to depict many things in line drawings and had pre-made grids to fit devices so you could just pop your pictures in, print out the sheet, and slide it into your device. The program cost over $500 and you had to have the CD in the computer (as well as install a part of it) to search or print out any photos. But it was dearly loved, by parents, teachers, SLPs and kids. And it still is. Mostly. :)
Let me tell you a story about what happened to me this fall. The teacher in my classroom sent an email to their tech people at head office asking if they would install Boardmaker to her computer. They messaged back that she needed to have her disk in the computer for them to do that from their site. So we put the disk in, and messaged them back that we were ready. Then they said it was all installed. But we got an error message. After several emails back and forth, we were very proud and excited that we finally got it installed to her classroom computer and we opened up the program. I added a few symbols to a display and we got ready to print. But the school only has a black and white printer onsite, and for this student we needed colour. The printing site with colour printing doesn't have the actual Boardmaker disk to put in their computer to print out our document (which can't be saved as a pdf), so they were unable to print in colour. I then tried to take it home and install it so I could use my own colour printer, but my version of Windows was too new, and I would have to upgrade my/her copy of Boardmaker. This process took well over a month.
Annoyed. That's how I felt. Maybe a smidge beyond that even, ha! To top it off, later this year, a student in the class is going to be trialling a device that doesn't even use Boardmaker symbols, and the apps on the iPads in the school don't have one Boardmaker symbol on them! So on a cool October day about a month ago, I decided I was done with it! I'm done with Boardmaker...unless someone insisted and could make it much easier for me and my clients than it currently is (I know, I know, they have a new Boardmaker online system...it might bring me back some day, the verdict is still out!). Technology advances have had a significant impact on the field of 'AAC' (augmentative and alternative communication), in more ways than I can even imagine!
It has been interesting to watch in the last few years, as a newer group of symbols has emerged with a nice clean website, a format that makes sense for the way clinicians work these days, and a yearly subscription fee of $49 with new symbols added at least weekly. I could pay for over 10 years and still not reach the cost of buying Boardmaker! They also have willingly partnered with many of the new apps and device programmers to include their gender-neutral clean symbols in current context. So, now most devices and apps use SymbolStix. And so do I.
I'm still feeling it out a bit. It has taken me awhile to figure out how it 'thinks'. I'm used to my old ways, and my old pictures! But it is growing on me, and the more I figure it out, the better I like it. I have set up folders for some of my main symbol students, and added in lots of symbols that I think they may like to say. I then downloaded the whole folder at once to my computer at home and added them into a table in a Word document. I also made a template on the website and downloaded a PDF right from their premade grids which I was able to send to the School district offsite printing place to get colour printing. Their symbols really are a different way of thinking, and that has taken me a bit of getting used to. I really like the gender neutral quality, and I like some of the expressions. Some of the simplest words are the hardest to depict on a symbol, and I appreciate the struggle I can see in the development of some of the symbols.
A word about photographs...A couple years ago, I had my thinking shaken up a bit by a speaker who came to town named Linda Burkhart. She's a practical approachable lady who has a great connection with kids and gets to the heart of the matter quite quickly. I find people either really appreciate her approach, or they find reasons to cast her aside. I really resonated with her thoughts on the use of photos and objects instead of symbols. If I may paraphrase, if a child is at the level where we need to teach them photos or objects paired to real activities, we will have to re-teach them if we ever move to symbols, so why not just start with symbols and see if that can work. There are many reasons that symbols have an edge over photographs for students - more transferable to new settings, easier to detect the salient features of the symbol, and I find in general, easier for the team to adapt, modify and use across settings. I have seen that to be true in my practice before I heard her say that, and also since then. So now I rarely use photographs as well. This article link explains it much more fully (and technically!) than I have here, and is an excellent article.
So, there are my thoughts tonight on symbols in speech therapy! Thanks for listening, any thoughts? Would love to hear them! I'll keep you posted as my relationship with SymbolStix continues. :)