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Repair Strategies to fix Communication Breakdown in AAC Users

Communication breakdown happens when a child attempts to communicate something and the partner has not understood it. A good communication partner helps the child to get their message across. But we can’t have learners rely on partners for effective communication. Learning to repair communication breakdowns is an important pragmatic skill AAC users need to learn to communicate autonomously.

repairing communication breakdowns

Fundamentals of Communication Repair

There seem to be a few component skills that are required for communication repair. These include 

1. Intentionality 

2. Ability to identify that a breakdown has occurred and to recognize the communication partner’s needs

3. Effective means to communicate

Children need to have communicative intent and the awareness that the partner has not understood them. They may use repetition, augmentation, or substitution to repair breakdowns. Having access to multiple communication modes helps a great deal in the repair process. This way, if the child finds that their communication attempt was unsuccessful, they can try using a different mode to convey their message.

The Breakdown and the Repair

When a child utters a message and it is misunderstood, communication partners request clarification. This prompts the child to adjust their message to achieve shared understanding.

Here’s an example of breakdowns and subsequent repairs.

Sara pulls her mother’s hand. Her mother asks, “What do you want?”. 

☝🏽 A communication breakdown has occurred here. The partner is indicating the same to encourage the child to repair her communication attempt.

Sara vocalizes. Her mother asks, “Do you want something? Maybe you can use your talker to tell me what you want”

☝🏽 Sara realizes that pulling her mother’s hand has not helped in conveying the message. So, she attempts to repair by vocalizing. Her mother indicates that she has not understood Sara’s message and gently asks her to say it with her talker.

☝🏽Sara takes her talker and taps the ‘TV’ button. Her mother acknowledges and reinforces by putting her favourite show ON.

Sara has identified that vocalizing too has resulted in a communication breakdown. She repairs by saying the message with her talker.

How can Communication Partners Help?

When initial communication attempts fail, children may get frustrated and this can lead to challenging behaviours. 

Say, a child points towards the kitchen to say they are hungry. When the partner fails to understand and reinforce, the child may begin to scream or cry to communicate that their need has not been met. 

So, communication partners need to support all non-problematic communication attempts and help the child in repairing. Here are a few ways partners can help children to repair breakdowns:

  1. We want to equip the child with repair strategies. But if the child’s communication attempt has a sense of urgency, we need to first address any problems that they might have before focussing on the repair.
  1. Guessing is a great way to help in repairing breakdowns. But we ought to play the guessing game mindfully. By understanding the context of the message and piecing the cues together, we can make sure that our guesses are not way off.
  1. Supporting the child to use multimodal communication can make the repair easier. For example, children with autism who are verbal may find it difficult to access their natural speech when they are overwhelmed. Providing access to low tech and high tech AAC systems can help them to make successful communication attempts. 
  1. Teaching communicative competence skills to children helps them to effectively convey their thoughts and opinions. This includes knowledge of how to use their AAC systems. Teaching them to use AAC when requested for clarification can help the repair process. Programming their AAC system so they have access to all the vocabulary they would need also helps in effective communication.


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