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Initiative helps patients with communication disorders

Oct. 21, 2021, 9:33 AM

A window display in Medical Center East is helping educate clinicians about alternative communication methods for patients who have difficulty communicating.
A window display in Medical Center East is helping educate clinicians about alternative communication methods for patients who have difficulty communicating. (photo by Donn Jones)

by Emily Stembridge

The Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences is working to educate clinicians about augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) methods for patients with communication disorders during October, which is AAC awareness month.

Claire Campbell, MA, CCC-SLP, is helping lead this effort at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, ensuring clinicians are aware of patients’ needs and that patients are given the necessary tools to play an active role in their care.

“AAC is anything that someone uses — other than their voice — to communicate,” Campbell said. “In the therapeutic context, we’re looking at patients who either can’t speak, have very limited words or people who are harder to understand due to a medical diagnosis. We use a lot of technology to give these individuals access to communication.”

This technology could be something as simple as a button with a recorded message a patient presses to send a message out loud, or as complex as software that allows a patient to select a sequence of icons to build sentences.

“AAC tools can give people more communication control and decrease frustration, as well as drastically increase participation and inclusion in daily activities,” said Kelly Crouch, CCC- SLP.

Many clinicians are unsure of who may benefit from a communication device. Most commonly, Campbell and her colleagues work with children who have autism, Down syndrome or cerebral palsy, and adults with ALS, Parkinson’s or a history of strokes.

“For patients with degenerative conditions such as ALS, it is important that providers refer patients to an AAC specialist as soon as the patient is diagnosed,” said Crouch. “Speech language pathologists can help the patient complete voice and message banking while their speech is still intelligible. This will allow for the individual’s own voice to be used on a high-tech communication device.”

If a physician thinks a patient may benefit from a communication device, no matter the diagnosis, Campbell encourages them to submit a referral for a pediatric AAC evaluation or an adult AAC evaluation. Nurses and social workers are encouraged to contact the pediatric AAC or adult AAC service line within the Hearing and Speech Department to discuss whether their patient may be a good candidate.

“It’s very important that these patients get referred for an AAC, so they are matched with providers who are well versed in how to use all of our equipment,” Campbell said. “At the evaluation, we get information about a patient’s communication, movement, vision and hearing abilities, and then we begin trying out equipment options.”

There are a few other things clinicians and the general public can do to interact meaningfully with individuals who have communication disorders, Campbell says.

“Many people don’t realize that individuals with communication challenges need extra time to communicate. I usually recommend waiting about 20 seconds for a response. If someone isn’t trying to initiate a response at that point, either rephrase or move on to another question,” she said.

Campbell also encourages clinicians to avoid interrupting patients with communication devices by trying to finish their sentences for them. Lastly, they should avoid standing next to patients with communication devices and reading over their shoulders. Instead, stand across from the patient and communicate with the person, not the device.

“We’re really excited to celebrate AAC awareness month this October,” Campbell said. “If you see someone who has a communication device, don’t hesitate to strike up a conversation with them — just give them the time and space they need to respond. Most people with communication challenges can communicate on a high level and have a lot of cool things to say.”

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