Multi Modal Communication

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images showing multi modal communication.  a robust aac device, a button with the "more" picture on it, and a boy holding a sentence strip with pictures showing "I want" and "train".

Multi-modal communication can reduce frustration in autistic children. This is because when we start accepting all attempts at communicating, we are honoring those attempts. What is multi-modal communication? Why are more and more professionals talking about it? Keep reading to find out! You can also listen to the podcast episode about multi-modal communication here.

several pictures showing different ways people communicate, including speech & vocalizations, robust AAC systems, pictures & choice boards, handwriting, gestures, texting, sign language, facial expression, body language, typing, and mid-tech devices.
This image is from The AAC Coach. She has so much valuable information and even a course on AAC. Click the picture to check her out!

What Is It?

Multi-modal communication can be defined as the different ways we all communicate with each other. This could be verbal speech, gestures, facial expressions, writing, sign language, communication devices, and more. This list is not exhaustive. Studies show that when multiple modes of communication are used, there are a reduced number of communication breakdowns.

For young autistic children, who are non-speaking, multi-modal communication is key for reducing frustration. When we acknowledge and honor all types of communication attempts, the child will be less stressed. If you are not able to honor the communication, acknowledge it. It is imperative that educators ask parents about all of the ways their child communicates. Does the child take their hand and lead them to what they want? Does the child cry or have a tantrum? What are they communicating when they do that? These insights are so important for everyone in the classroom to be aware of!

Once we know all the ways each individual student communicates, we begin with honoring as much of that communication as possible. For example, if a student who is new to your classroom pushes away an activity, honor that. It may seem counterintuitive, but when we set aside our agenda (for the time being), and honor the communication attempt, we build positive relationships. It doesn’t mean we will never push through and teach the child how to persevere, but it means right now we put communication first. Communication and relationship. As much as possible.

If you have been modeling and teaching a student to use pictures to communicate, what happens if they give you the “train” picture in the middle of another activity? If you are able, honor that and drop everything to play trains (or have one of your paras play with them). We WANT our students to communicate with us. So, let’s do what we can to make sure those attempts continue to happen!

Just because an autistic child may be non-speaking, it doesn’t mean that aren’t communicating. With multi-modal communication, we respect and honor all ways the child communicates. When each modality of communication is valued equally, it gives children a “voice”.

text that says "being non-speaking does not mean I have nothing to say".

Examples of Multi Modal Communication

As educators, the thing we want to be careful about is insisting on only one mode of communication. It’s okay to model other modes of communication, but only accepting one specific mode is not recommended.

For example, I have a student who does not like to go to gym class right now. When an adult shows him the picture of gym class on his visual schedule, he pushes it away. Sometimes he says “all done”. This student also uses a PECS book to communicate. During those moments, I am not going to insist he uses the PECS book to tell me that he doesn’t want to go to the gym. He has already protested by pushing the picture away (gesture), or by saying “all done”. Those are 2 different forms of communication where he clearly communicated that he does not want to go to gym class.

Instead of insisting on using PECS, I’m going to honor what he is communicating to me. Then, as his teacher, I’m going to start to brainstorm what it is about the gym that he doesn’t like. How can I make it more comfortable for him? Is it a sensory thing? Does he not like the activities? Is it not structured enough? Talk to your paras and even parents to come up with some ideas.

So, for this little guy, not going to the gym was becoming a pattern. I hypothesized that when coming into school, he was excited to play with his favorite toys. He didn’t want to stop off at gym class because he wanted to play with the toys in the classroom. The next day, I met him in the hall with a box of legos. He really likes legos. I showed him a picture of gym and said “let’s play legos in the gym”. He immediately walked to the gym. We didn’t do the gym activities, but we did play legos!

Some ways my students communicate in my early childhood special education classroom are:

This quote from David Niemeijer and Amanda Hartmann of Assistiveware is so perfect when it comes to multi-modal communication. “Remember, communication is the goal. The method is secondary.”

Tips For Encouraging Multi Modal Communication

  1. After the child has communicated something to you (pushing away materials). Do not put their device or communication book in front of them and say “tell me with your talker/book”. Instead, accept their communication and YOU can model another way to communicate that message using their device/book. The key difference here is not insisting they use their AAC when they’ve already communicated with you in another way.
  2. Keep modeling the use of AAC for different communication functions throughout the day (protesting, requesting, commenting, directing, asking for information, etc…).
  3. Respect and accept the different modes of communication that your autistic students use.

Watch the replay of the Multi-Modal Communication Mini-Training here.

Listen to podcast episode 9, all about multi-modal communication here.

If you use visual supports in your classroom or home, you are going to want to sign up for this free Visual Supports Starter Set ASAP! Click here to have one sent to your inbox. Also, be sure to read more about visual supports and how they can help autistic children here.

a picture with a variety of visual supports for autistic children there is an all done symbol, a wait mat, a first-then board, a visual schedule, an adapted book and a change card

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