Stop with the “Little Words” Grab-Bag in AAC
by: One of The Speech Dudes (Dude #1)
I have a proverbial bee in my bonnet today related to the sloppy way that some folks seem to think that designing an AAC system is just a matter of (a) collecting a list of words, (b) adding a set of pictures, and (c) sticking them on pages. This is errant nonsense, positively dangerous, and, after over 30 years of living in a world where AAC systems have been in operation, a sad indictment of how little we appear to have learned. Is that strong enough for yah?
The number of popular press articles that have erupted in the past year or so about how the iPad can be magically used to provide “voices for the voiceless” is staggering. What’s more staggering is that you’d think nothing had ever been done prior to the iPad – as if Steve Jobs (all praise unto His name) invented AAC. Why, one article was positively gushing about how a doctor (it’s always a “doctor”) had invented a new program where he had a page of pictures that – gasp! – spoke recorded messages when you hit a key. Awesome! Who’d have thunk it? 
Those of us who’ve been in the field most of that 30 years have typically adopted the perspective of “well, this is raising the awareness of AAC to levels unknown” and “a rising tide raises all boats.” But are we so sure? Do we really think folks are getting some “better deal” because of the 100+ apps that are now available as “AAC solutions” – all of which claim to be The Answer, often supported by little more than some flashy words culled from linguistics and speech science, such as “core,” “morpheme,” “word,” “cognitive,” and, my favorite, “intuitive. Toss in lots of exclamation points , a YouTube video of some poor kiddo having their face thrust into an iPad, and bingo… AAC in a box! I hear the product “experts” at Best Buy and the Apple stores are now recommending AAC solutions based on their years of experience in the field. 
Which brings me to the topic of linguistic grab-bags as an excuse for avoiding thinking about teaching language.
There are several AAC offerings out there that use a folder/page/list labeled “Little Words.” This turns out to be shorthand for “I don’t really know where to put them so let’s toss ‘em all in one bag.”
There is no particular rationale for these little words other than they are, well… little! And by “little” I mean have few letters. And by “few” I mean somewhere between one and five. So this effectively means we have a collection of words defined as “words with five letters or less.” That’s it. Where is the linguistic coherence here? Are we teaching language or not? If we ARE teaching language – and I’d like to think we are – then putting if, in, is, and it together as “little words” is so tragically far from useful as to be almost negligent.
If we’re OK with also having at, by, of, and be as little words, why not toss in ax, we and me? And once you allow a three-letter word to be classed as a “little word,” your box gets full to overflowing. I’ve seen the and that in the “little word” box, so I see no logical reason why bat, mat, bug, rug, bit, pit, sit, shy, cry ad nauseam shouldn’t be included.
Ah, someone might want to say, but we wouldn’t include bat, mat, bug, rug, and pit because they are THINGS and we can put those in a different folder/list/box. The good news is that now you’re starting to think linguistically, and I’m going to agree with you. But why only do half the job? Why not apply that thinking to your entire vocabulary set?
You see, if you only do half the job, you end up with your “little words” box containing all the words that you couldn’t fit somewhere else. It becomes the Island of Misfit words, a sad collection of poor little lexical orphans with nowhere else to go. 
The reality is that little words typically do have somewhere else to go. The trick is to decide where they go and to reflect that within the system you’re designing. In my original list, if can shack up with other conjunctions; in plays nice with other prepositions, is is a verb, and it can cuddle up comfortably with its close friends, the pronouns.
There is no need for “little words.” There is no need for “grab bags.” What there is is a need for rationale, intelligent, informed thinking based on what we know about language and what we’ve learned over the past 40+ years of AAC.
And shame on us if we don’t shout this out loudly for fear of being labelled reactionary, old-fashioned, out-of-touch, or plain wrong. If you’re claiming to have a “good” AAC app and you have a “little words” package, my question is simple…
 For the hard-of-thinking, let’s get one thing cleared up right now: My beef is not with the development of solutions for technology, whatever that technology may be. I’m all for it. Why, I have more technology in my room than Lindsay Lohan has rehab appointments. My beef is with poor, misleading, and “tossed-together-because-it-seems-easy” solutions. There are a some very good solutions to a range of speech and language problems out there – and that includes non-AAC offerings – but frankly, there’s more junk than substance. Catch me at a conference, buy me a drink, and I’ll name names and give you specifics, but I ain’t gonna get into an online slanging match with individuals. But you know who you are!
 I’m willing to bet that there is an inverse relationship between the number of exclamation points used in an article and its veracity (that’s “truthiness” for the Stephen Colbert fans.) When you see anything that includes such typography and words as “New!!” “Faster!!!!” or “Game Changing!!!!!” take a deep breath and move on. “Sober marketing” is an oxymoron and if something smell like a 3:00 a.m. infommercial, it probably is.
 If you’re skeptical of this claim, try this: go to your local Best Buy, grab a random blue-jacketed employee, and ask them to show you an iPad. Then ask them if it could be used with someone with a “speech problem” or even “autism.” See what happens.
 At this point, I have visions of a cartoon version of An Officer and a Gentleman with the Richard Gere character played by the word of, sobbing uncontrollably in front of a drill sergeant crying, “Don’t you do it! Don’t! You… I got nowhere else to go! I got nowhere else to g… I got nothin’ else.”
Featured Contributor: One of The Speech Dudes (aka Russell Cross)
Russell Cross is an SLP who has worked for many years in AAC in both the USA and Europe. With all intentions of being a psychologist, he completed his ifrst degree in Psychology and Linguistics but then went into Speech Therapy. As the first person to plug in a new computer at his clinic in the mid 80’s, he became the default AT person and stuck with it since then. As one of the Speech Dudes, he’s dedicated to adding a sense of humor to Speech and Language Pathology via their web site at The Speech Dudes
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