Being with Another: The Basis for AAC intervention?

I recently went back to South Africa to see my mom, who is 88. She is in a nursing facility with 24-hour care, unable to walk, and at times quite confused. During the past year she had a couple of ischemic attacks, which rendered her unable to speak for certain periods of time. Recently, however, she has regained some speech, although verbal expression remains difficult. In spite of all these factors, I looked forward to our visit.

The author with her mom and her brother
The author with her mom and her brother

I talk to my mom on the phone from New York on a daily basis. Even though interactions are difficult, we are able to maintain interaction for sometimes shorter and sometimes longer periods of time. My visits with her are less focused on content and more on celebrating the joy of being together.

When in Johannesburg, I visit her at the facility twice a day for about an hour each in the morning and afternoon, depending on how my mom and I seem to be doing at the time and on a specific day.

Being with Another

During our interactions, I have become conscious of how we influence each other.  My state of mind and ability to be present with her impact on the quality of our interactions. When I am preoccupied with other things, visitations are generally short and less satisfactory. Visiting times when I have planned topics “to talk about” tend to be less satisfactory than those times when we simply “talk about what comes to mind.” When I allow myself to be with her and comment on what seems relevant at the time, the connection between us seems more satisfying—for example by commenting on how the color of the flowers in her room seems to liven up the room, or how nice one of the family pictures looks on the wall.

Allowing ourselves time to be together seems to provide a simpler and more effective way to connect with each other. It made me think of Michael Verde’s ( latest documentary, Love is Listening, which highlights the importance of being present to another to really be able to listen to and see the another.

Being with Another and  AAC intervention

A common awareness between two people is a basic, yet elusive part of meaningful interaction. We often seem to be busy “doing activities” and “using the AAC technology”—and forget the importance of being with clients who use AAC. Yet, much can be gained by allowing oneself the quietness to be with a client who uses AAC. This allows us to establish some joint awareness (a connection) from where more meaningful interactions become possible. This experience of being with and feeling socially connected to another forms the basis of human relationships (see this article on how “A Social Circle is Key to Protecting the Aging Mind”). And yet, this aspect is often neglected in our AAC interventions.

The challenge of making social connections

At times I wonder if the preparatory work we put into therapy and teaching sessions is not more obstructive than enabling in assisting us to see and respond to our students who use AAC. I am not suggesting that preparing for therapy and classroom sessions is not necessary; but rather, that we need to become more aware of how our preoccupation with what we want to do impacts on students’ openness to gain from our interactions.

If we accept that the ability to make a connection with our clients is at the basis of effective intervention, then raising awareness of how to be with another needs to be upfront in our minds. Rather than providing parents of children who use AAC with strategies to use with their children, shouldn’t we invest time to ensure parents can be with their children (have some connection with them) as a basis for expanding their children’s communication skills? There is no one-size-fits-all solution here; however, it seems counter-intuitive to not let parents experience what we mean when we say “communication is more than exchanging messages.

Can we really be satisfied with intervention outcomes if students who use AAC leave school with the skill to operate their devices to demonstrate some language and academic skills, but have not had the experience of connecting with peers in developing friendships?

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