Multi-Sensory Environments and Augmentative Communication Tools

Multi-Sensory Environments and Augmentative Communication Tools

Cynthia L. Wagner, Jennifer Delisi
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61520-817-3.ch008
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This chapter discusses the use of augmentative communication tools in conjunction with use of a multi-sensory environment. Though little has been written about the pairing, the authors discuss related literature, the history of their program’s use, the emerging communicators with whom they notice a great benefit, and the challenges of implementation. The purpose of this chapter is to open the discussion about the relationship between the two, to examine some of the related research, and to propose new research directions which could benefit adults who face communication challenges due to sensory issues. The focus is on the issues faced by adults with developmental disabilities and autism.
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Communication difficulties can be caused by physical impairments, cognitive impairments, and/or sensory impairments. Physical impairments can impact the productive communication skills of a person with communication challenges. Such impairments may prevent them from physically producing certain sounds. These impairments also can limit use of augmentative communication tools because the person may have difficulty pointing to objects, manipulating their hands to form words in sign language, or accessing a communication device through alternative access methods such as switches or a head mouse. For some people with developmental disabilities and autism, physical impairments complicating communication may not be visible.

Cognitive impairments can affect language acquisition in multiple ways. For people with Down syndrome (DS), short-term memory may be a concern (Iglesia, Buceta, & Campos, 2005). Short-term memory is how we initially store new verbal vocabulary, navigate through a new communication device, or remember the meaning of new picture symbols. Another concern is the processing of language. Research “suggests that participants with DS have a deficit in verbal processing” (Iglesia et al., 2005, p. 201). This has also been discussed for individuals with other cognitive impairments. Much of the new vocabulary we acquire comes from things we have heard others say. Motor speech deficits, such as apraxia, can cause difficulty with multiple types of production issues. Koul, Schlosser, and Sancibrian (2001) discuss motor issues specifically in relation to people with autism, but it affects individuals with other disorders as well. When looking at selection options for communication devices, for example, “The movement of the body part or body-part extension (e.g., the headstick) must be sufficiently controllable so that only a single item is activated with each depression” (Beukelman & Mirenda, 1992, p. 58).

Finally, sensory impairments prevent us from acquiring all the information that the environment presents. Iglesia et al. (2005) state that “if more senses are engaged in receiving the information (e.g., sight, hearing), the recall of story details will be facilitated” (p. 199). The opposite is true as well—when fewer senses are engaged in receiving the information, we take in fewer details. These details could be facial expressions which denote sarcasm, inflections which communicate questions versus statements, or endings of words which detail the tense. This is not just the case for visual impairments and auditory impairments, but also for those who have Central Auditory Processing Disorder, those not taking in enough of a particular sense, and for those who take in too much of one sense.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Sensory Issues: Difficulty taking in and interpreting sights, sounds, touch, taste and movement.

Autism: A developmental brain disorder characterized by impaired social interaction and communication, and restricted and repetitive behavior. The autism spectrum includes Asperger’s Syndrome, Rett Syndrome, Childhood Disintegrative Disorder and Pervasive Developmental Disorder—Not Otherwise Specified.

Vestibular: Input from the inner ear telling the body about balance, change in gravity, movement around the body as well as movement of the body.

Augmentative Communication Tools: Picture symbols, sign language and gesture, voice output devices, which can be used to assist in communication.

Multi-Sensory Environment: A designated space designed to alert, or calm the senses.

Proprioception: Sensory information received from joints and muscles telling the body about pressure, movement and changes in position in space.

Developmental Disability: Lifelong disability due to cognitive and/or physical impairments beginning early in life.

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