Interview between Speaker 1 (Meg) and Speaker 2 (Kate McLaughlin)

[Introductory note]
Hey, it’s Meg! If you’re an OT or a speech therapist who loves this podcast, you’ll enjoy my free training, Four Essential Strengths-Based Strategies for Autism. In this training, I dive deep into the places where many therapists are getting autism wrong, talk about why it matters way more than we realize, and teach four concrete strategies that you can start using right away. We even talk in-depth about what we know now about autism learning styles, because when we can shift our perspective and truly consider how autistic kids think and learn, we can start generating more meaningful and effective interventions to help our clients find more joy, independence, connection, and acceptance in their lives. Visit to start learning right away.

[Introductory music]
Welcome to the Two Sides of the Spectrum Podcast. A place where we explore research, amplify autistic voices, and change the way we think about autism in life, and in occupational therapy practice. I’m Meg Proctor from

Meg: Before we get started, a quick note on language. On this podcast, you’ll hear me and many of my guests use identity-affirming language. That means we say, ‘autistic person,’ rather than, ‘person with autism’. What we’re hearing from the majority of autistic adults is that autism is a part of their identity that they don’t need to be separated from. Autism is not a disease, it’s a different way of thinking and learning. Join me in embracing the word ‘autistic’ to help reduce the stigma.

Welcome to Episode 27 with Kate McLaughlin. Kate is a Speech-Language Pathologist specializing in augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), which you’ll hear us refer to in this episode as AAC. She really specializes in helping individuals with complex communication needs. Kate believes that autonomous communication, inclusion, and self-determination are fundamental human rights. I will dive deep into what all of that means in today’s interview. So, first, a little bit more about Kate. Her private practice is called AAC Services of Connecticut, and in her practice, Kate partners with learners and their families to support their AAC journey through direct or consultative services. You may know Kate from her social media presence as The AAC Coach.

So, in this conversation, Kate gets really concrete and specific about how we can support authentic, autonomous communication for our clients. So, if you’re a speech-language pathologist or an OT who works with an emerging communicator who wants to learn more about AAC, or who has even just had a kid show up to a session with an AAC device, Kate’s advice is absolutely essential. And a quick teaser, this is really exciting. If you listen to this episode and you want to learn more from Kate and maybe get some continuing education credit while you do it, she’s developing a course for Learn Play Thrive that should come out later this summer or early next fall. So, make sure to visit and join the waitlist so you don’t miss more amazing insight from Kate. Okay, here’s the interview.

Hi, Kate, welcome to the podcast.

Kate: Hi, thanks for having me.

Meg: I am really, really very excited to have you here. So, let’s start by talking a little bit about you and your work. Tell us a little bit of your background and how you became an AAC specialist.

Kate: Sure. So, I am a speech language pathologist. I have been practicing for 15, 16 years now, most of that time has been AAC-specific. So, I am currently in private practice in Connecticut, and I work with families who are implementing AAC with their learners. I work with school districts, I do a bit of consulting, and doing a little bit more online these days. So, all over the place [Laughs]. But yeah, I get to work primarily with individuals who are exclusively, really, with individuals who use AAC.

Meg: That’s wonderful. And I know a lot of people listening will say, “How did you develop this specialty?” What was your path that led you to being such a wealth of knowledge to support AAC users?

Kate: So, I started my own private practice 11 years ago. And in doing that, it allowed me to pick, you know, the kids that I wanted to work with, individuals I wanted to work with. And I knew from very early on, even in grad school, that AAC was what I wanted to do. So, I really picked the jobs that I had before going into private practice specifically with that in mind. And I also have really, really benefited from mentor relationships. So, I think I’ve had the opportunity to do tons of train — AAC trainings, and that’s been wonderful. But the mentor relationships that I’ve had have been invaluable. So, I’ve been lucky in that respect.

Meg: That’s wonderful. We really do, especially as new practitioners, or when we’re new to sort of a specialty area. We really do need that mentorship to be confident, and to be effective, and to know what we’re doing, and handle all of the ways that things get complicated or challenging.

Kate: Yeah, I think it’s really helpful to have somebody who’s more experienced to sit down and just talk back and forth and think about the problem solving, and look at it from different angles. So, I’m very indebted to the folks that did that for me.

Meg: Well, now you’re doing it for so many people, providing guidance through your website and through your social media platforms so that we can do a better job with our work around AAC as well, and that is so valuable. So, a lot of your work focuses around autonomous communication. Can you tell us what that means, and why that’s been your primary focus?

Kate: Right. So, autonomous communication is something that I learned about from Gayle Porter and Linda Burkhart, who are — Gayle Porter is a speech language pathologist out of Australia, and Linda Burkhart is a special educator here in the States. And Gayle Porter talks about autonomous communication as “being able to say whatever I want to say, whenever I want to say it, to whomever I want to say it, however I want to say it”. So, it’s really not about so much the AAC, it’s about having enough tools and skills at your disposal to be able to communicate in a way that’s in line with your own personal intentions. And I think, I think it’s important to, when we think about autonomous communication, to think about it, in contrast to independence. So, there are a lot of learners for whom, especially early on in their AAC learning, independence is not necessarily something that they can do with their AAC. But they can be autonomous if the people around them are aware that autonomy is the goal, and are giving them the skills and the space to express what they want to say.

Meg: Can you give me an example of communication that is autonomous but not necessarily independent?

Kate: Sure. So, I think a lot about my learners who are partner assisted scanners, meaning they have systems — robust systems — that somebody helps by going through options, and then they indicate is that the one they want or not. So, that system is partner reliant, but it’s autonomous in the sense that they get to pick what they want to say, they have access to tons of vocabulary to choose from, and that really allows individuals with really complex bodies to be able to express themselves in line with their own intentions even though their physical abilities might not allow them to do that independently with the communication device quite yet.

Meg: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. We’ve had this distinction come up in a few different contexts on the podcast, actually, of autonomy versus independence. And we conflate these words in our language all the time, and they have different meanings. And often our goal is autonomy, not independence. And that opens up a lot of avenues.

Kate: It does. And I think so often, particularly in AAC, we think of independence as the goal. And while independence is important — we want to be building independence as much as possible so that individuals are not partner reliant — if we make independence the most important thing, other things have to suffer for that. So, we might not offer as much language or, you know, the possibilities get smaller. So, if we keep autonomy at the center, then we’re planning for someone to be able to be able to, really, as I said, operate from their own intentions rather than be limited.

Meg: I have to just repeat what you said because I’m rolling it over in my head a few times. So, if independence is our goal, we offer fewer opportunities for communication, or we limit how our learner is going to be able to communicate based on what they can do independently.

Kate: Often.

Meg: But if autonomous communication is our goal, we might, in certain circumstances, be able to give them access to more robust communication opportunity.

Kate: Right. So, often if we’re thinking about independence as our primary goal, we might make an AAC system more simplistic so that they independently can select and produce messages. The problem with that is autonomy suffers, because they don’t — aren’t able to have as much language to really be able to express their own thoughts in the nuanced ways that they probably — you know, none of us could communicate all the thoughts we have with a very limited set of vocabulary. So, by making independence the goal there, their autonomy suffers because they can’t express their own unique thoughts really precisely. And often, what we end up doing is devaluing the AAC system to the learner because they can’t express their autonomous thoughts. So, this system isn’t really serving the purpose for them. They don’t see the value in it, understandably.

Meg: Well, okay, I feel like I could just end the interview now. Like, that is what we came here to learn. We have learned that that is a really powerful message. And I have about a million other things that I’m excited to ask you. So, with that as our foundation, I know a lot of your work does center around supporting emergent communicators. What are emergent communicators? What does this mean, and what are some of their most foundational needs?

Kate: So, emergent communicators are anybody of any age that does not yet have a consistent, reliable means of symbolic expression. By symbolic expression, I mean words, or signs, or symbols. They don’t have a consistent accessible access to language. That can be young kids, and it can be adults that have not yet had the opportunity or the implementation needed to acquire symbolic language, if that makes sense.

Meg: Yeah, that does make a lot of sense. So, you know, I like this language too. We’ve talked a lot in different places on social media and here on the podcast about language around kids who don’t speak or don’t speak yet. And there’s this push to move away from calling them non-verbal because it doesn’t presume that they’re competent to communicate and use language given the right tools. And I especially like this sort of growth mindset language that you’re using of emergent communicators, that they are communicating and the ways in which they’re communicating is still emerging, and we need to approach them in ways that are effective for them, given their current ability to access communicate.

Kate: Right. Yeah, and when we say emergent, we’re really talking about again, language. So, they’re working to develop language. That doesn’t mean they’re not an active multimodal communicator; they are, and it’s so important that we recognize that, because that opens up our ability to interact and develop relationships that ultimately become the foundation for language learning. So, it’s really, really important to understand that all of our learners are active communicators. And that, you know, what we’re doing is looking to give them more tools by teaching language and giving them access to language, to really, again, move them towards full autonomous communication.

Meg: I hear a distinction here too, between language and communication. It sounds like that they’re all communicators, and we’re giving them tools so that they can use language as a part of their communication.

Kate: That’s right.

Meg: So, what do we want to consider when we are working with our emergent AAC learners?

Kate: First and foremost, we really need to have quality connection and relationship with our learners. So, and as I said before, it’s really important that we’re recognizing them as communicators, and engaging and interacting with them in response to their multimodal communication. So, if they’re communicating with gestures, or vocalizations, or body movements, we need to be in tune with those and really responding and respecting them first and foremost, because without that relationship and connection, the learning that we hope to have happen is a lot less likely to happen. So, first and foremost, I really look to connection and relationship.

In teaching them AAC they need to have access to a robust language system. So, they need — and we’re talking, you know, we’ve mentioned robust AAC, but they need a system that has lots and lots of language, the ability to communicate, for lots of reasons, access to grammar and the alphabet; it has to be a very, very full system. And what we then do is we model without expectation. And that means that we’re modeling without expecting them to use that robust system right away. Again, it does not mean that we’re modeling without an interaction. We’re having that multimodal interaction, but we are modeling the AAC system, and we’re doing it, again, in the context of connected, authentic relationship. So, we’re talking about the things that matter to them and we’re reflecting the things that they seem to be communicating using all the different strategies they are they already have.

Meg: I love this so much. Because one of the main reasons that I think we see therapists using compliance-based strategies that might violate a child’s autonomy, things like hand-over-hand or offering rewards to get them to do something, it’s often because we have set an expectation, we’ve written a goal, and we see it as our job to make them meet that goal. And when the goal isn’t appropriate, our teaching strategies aren’t a good match, the activity isn’t interesting or engaging, whatever the reason it’s not working, we start tacking on these strategies that do violate a child’s autonomy in order to make them meet that goal. And when you explicitly say, build a relationship, connect, and model without expectation as the first steps of this, it really sets us up for a relationship-based, respectful approach, rather than a compliance-based approach.

Kate: Exactly, exactly. I think so often, when we go in — and I am someone who is not a proponent of prompting, and when it comes to teaching AAC — but when we go in and do a lot of prompting, often what we’re doing is prompting kids to say things, or adults to say things that they don’t want to say. And that’s part of the reason they’re not doing it. And again, what we’re doing there is, as you say, violating body autonomy often with physical prompts. But we’re also moving away from our ultimate goal of autonomous communication. And I think it’s so important for professionals to realize that most of the professionals, if not all that I’ve met, go in with good intentions to want their learners to be able to communicate. But the strategies that then come into play actually don’t achieve that end goal. They make it look like there’s progress in terms of getting kids to comply, but they don’t actually teach that learner to communicate their own messages, or to realize that AAC is their voice and that it’s valuable to them. It really becomes a situation where AAC feels like work, and that decreases the likelihood they’re going to actually use it for the reasons that were there to teach it.

Meg: This makes a lot of sense, and it really ties back into the power of strengths-based goal writing, because you keep grounding us back in our goal being autonomous communication. And if that is our goal, then it lends itself to all of these strategies that we’re talking about, and if we can keep grounding ourselves in that strengths-based goal, we’re going to be more likely to stay on the right track, provided we have the skills and the know how to be doing what we’re trying to do. What are some of the other pieces of working with emergent AAC learners?

Kate: Right. So, the other pieces I think about is I think about engaging environments or engaging interactions. We have to, and I think this can be challenging at times for people to get their mind around, how do we help engage kids that don’t seem like they’re interested in anything? And I think that’s the time where we really need to get curious and learn about the kid in front of us, accept the learner in front of us for who they are and see, what are you interested in? What are you enjoying? What, you know, what rings meaningful to you? And get in there and respectfully, right, we don’t want to be overwhelming or, you know, get in the way of their regulation. But get, you know, respectfully join them and in their interests, and build on those interests, and have those meaningful interactions in that context.

By doing that, there are models on AAC that are more likely to be things that they want to say, we’re maintaining our relationship with them, because we’re not trying to force some prescribed activity on them. And they’re more likely to wanna say something because it’s something that they’re engaged in, and now you’re becoming somebody who values what they value.

Meg: I had a child who I knew a while back, who was a smart and non-speaking, preschool, kindergarten-aged child. And the first thing that he learned to do on his AAC device was call his dog. And he loved his dog so much. And it was such a wonderful first activity, and so meaningful, and so motivating to him, and not what an adult who wasn’t watching him, and listening to him, and learning from him would have picked.

Kate: Right, yeah. So often, if we’re not really in tune with our learner, we’re thinking about snack time, or things that are just very obviously motivating. But — and so we think, “Oh, we’ll get in there, and we’ll teach AAC then.” But the truth of the matter is, it’s not respectful or engaging to sit there and ask for everybody the food. So, yeah, that example is great. Looking to what, you know, the individual values and showing them how AAC is valuable to them in that context, how does it enrich their life.

Meg: Awesome. Okay, so we have building the relationship and the connection; we’re modeling using the device ourselves in communication with them without expecting anything to happen; and we’re learning about the child and what’s interesting to them, and what contexts inspire engagement and communication for that. What else?

Kate: So, after that, I think it really comes down to being a responsive partner. We’re not pushing the learner to communicate anything; we know that they’re communicating already using lots of different strategies. So, being really responsive to those strategies, noticing what they’re communicating using other strategies and modeling that on the AAC, responding to, always, to what they have to say, and if they do start to use their device — which they often do when you’re in that authentic relationship, interesting context, and you’re showing them how the device works — responding to anything they do as meaningful. Letting them explore their device and see what they — or their communication book — and see what they could say on their end, and let them know that, “When you use that, this is what it means to me.” It doesn’t mean, “I hold you to everything you say,” but hey, you know, I heard you say whatever, and that means something to me in this context, or maybe it doesn’t, but I’m still responding and saying, “I heard you say ‘fence’. I’m not sure what you mean right now, but that’s okay.” So, you know, showing them that anything they do on that device is okay. And when they use it, it’s meaningful to me. And so, over time, then they find the words that are important to them. And, you know, we show them more words that go with that, and they can begin to expand.

Meg: So, respond to the — there’s a lot of therapists who might give a child a device, and then they say, “Yeah, we tried a technology-based device and the child was, quote, ‘just stimming on it’, or quote, ‘just playing with it’, or ‘just using it as a cause-and-effect toy’.” That’s very, very different than the way you were framing this. Can you respond to those objections that we hear?

Kate: Yeah, yeah. So, I think there’s a whole lot to say there. One, I’ve put AAC systems in front of my neurotypical kids, my own kids. And they do that, too. They explore, and they try all the different words, and they get a kick out of how it sounds or funny words that they find. I think that’s very natural for kids to do. So, that’s one. Two, it takes a long time to learn AAC. And it takes a long time, even with really stellar implementation. So, having an expectation that you’re going to do this for a month or two, or even a year, if there hasn’t been all these foundational things that we’re talking about, if they’re just an owner of that AAC device, rather than, you know, a learner or user of that AAC device, and the people around them aren’t necessarily modeling in a connected way about the things that the learner finds most important to them. Yet, you’re — we’re not going to be showing them the value in that system. So, you know, I haven’t met, I don’t think, any learners who have had really good connected, engaging modeling of their AAC system that haven’t used it meaningfully. So, to say they’re just stimming on it, I think is maybe a misunderstanding of what’s happening.
Meg: One thing that I’ve heard other AAC-competent therapists describe as sort of an opposing view to this “Oh, they’re just playing” idea is the way that speakers play with language when they’re first learning to speak, which also takes a long time, right? It takes years for kids to learn to speak with parents, frankly, modeling it without expectation, and providing opportunities and interesting things. And when kids learn to speak, they start by playing with sounds and words. Is there sort of a parallel process there with AAC potentially?

Kate: Absolutely. Yeah, I think we can look at that as babbling on the communication device. I think what I want to say about this is that there has to be responsive partners who are responding to that babbling. Some of it is exploration, and that’s totally natural. And some of it is “I’m just seeing what I can do here, and seeing what effect that has on my environment and what the people around me.” So, seeing it as babbling and responding to it is really, really important. It’s also really important to always be thinking about, “Well, what would I expect from any other child?” So, as you say, this is a parallel process, it’s just with a different form. But also, what do we hold other kids to? It’s not even just that they have to go through the — you know, they go through the stage of babbling, but we allow them that space, and we respond to it. We don’t assume that 100% that’s what they mean, we just allow them to engage in that learning experience, and we model back in our responses.

Meg: That is such a good point. I’ve heard a few different examples of this on the podcast of how we hold our autistic clients to these standards that we don’t hold neurotypical kids to. So, if you gave a kid an iPad, and you wanted them to do some sort of coding activity for school, and instead, they played a game on it. You don’t say, “They’re not gonna be able to learn coding on the iPad, because they were just playing on it,” you say, “Well, of course, they just played on it,” right? That is what any kid would do as they’re learning about the device and moving towards potentially other more goal-oriented, if I could say, or different goal-oriented activities that they can do there. But you’re right, we’re holding autistic kids to a very different standard.

Kate: Yeah. And I also think this goes back to the strengths-based conversation, or the medical versus social model of disability, in the sense of when I hit a barrier with a learner, I first and foremost look at my implementation and think about what’s working here, what’s not working here, what can I shift. And I think, often following that medical model of diagnosing and fixing problems, we are quick to assign the difficulty to the learner. And I really firmly believe when we’re implementing AAC, that there’s — that’s never the learner’s fault. We have to look first and foremost to our implementation, and how can we shift to help them be successful. And sometimes that means really taking a look at the AAC supports we have in place. But more often than not, it’s what we’re doing.

Meg: That makes a lot of sense. Yeah. Are there any other strategies that you want us to have in mind for our emergent communicators?

Kate: I talk a lot about feedback. And there are strategies to continue their learning, being really intentional with the feedback we give. But I think the most important thing is to avoid prompts and cues. So, we go to that so quickly, often for ASD. Kids really need a long time of people modeling and then exploring without prompts and cues. And I’ve really shifted in my own practice, away from thinking about prompts and cues, and thinking more towards encouraging expression. And I have strategies that I use to encourage expression, but I don’t ever prompt. I certainly never prompt for specific language.

Meg: Why?

Kate: Why? Again, going back to the autonomous communication, I don’t know what a learner wants to say. And so, if I get in there and I start prompting, maybe I’m right. More often than not, I’m wrong, or I might be in the ballpark. But the truth of the matter is that doesn’t necessarily support them and understanding their AAC is their voice and not seeing it as work. So, instead, what I look to do is say, “Oh, looks like you have something to say,” right, and try and increase their awareness again. Now is time that I have something to say and then maybe, “Oh, your talkers here, maybe that could help us.” And then after that, I go back to modeling. So, I model a couple options on their device that may help them in that moment, maybe not. I’m saying, “Maybe you’re thinking…,” or, “I wonder if…,” and then I’m giving them back their device. And if they choose to express something, either in agreement with what I said, or something totally different, then we follow that. And if not, we let it go. Unless it’s, you know, it’s super important to them that we continue and we can look at the multimodal communication in that context. But I look — again, I look at it as encouraging their expression, but not prompting them for a specific language or making them communicate in any moment in time.
Meg: Yeah, it sounds like using prompts and cues for communication works against both autonomy and independence because we are going to skew what they’re communicating if we’re prompting them for specific language use, and we’re also going to become a part of the process of using a communication device if we create that routine of when I say, “Find the button on your device, that’s when you use your device.” So, now we’re taking away from their independence, as well as their autonomy.

Kate: Right. It certainly can do that. And I think the other thing that comes up is sometimes people feel like, well, they can’t do it on their own for some motor planning or physical reason. And then that’s the time to step back and look at our implementation and our supports, and say, “Is this the right match?”, right? If they need that significant level of support, then maybe we need to still keep it robust and still have autonomy at the front. But maybe we need to think about how the AAC system is set up, maybe we need to think about how we’re teaching them the motor planning, and help supporting them to intend those movements when they need to. But ultimately, again, it comes back to our problem solving and figuring out what will support them.

Meg: One of the other reasons I like the way you framed this is it’s aligned with trauma sensitive practice. And also, we’ve been talking a lot about pathological demand avoidance on the podcast recently. But also, for our kids who don’t have a PDA profile but also tend to avoid demands, when you talked about the way you encourage communication, you weren’t making any demands. You also weren’t asking questions. And so, it’s really fundamentally respecting the autonomy of the child there for them to make the choice about whether or not they’re going to do it, and how, and if, and what they’re going to do with it.

Kate: You said ‘how’ there, and I think that that’s also an important point to highlight. Often, when we’re teaching AAC, we get so focused on the AAC that we forget that they get to choose how. So, even though they’re learning AAC, if they’re successful using gestures or facial expression, that’s smart for them to do, right. It’s the most efficient, and if it gets the job done, cool. But so often, as therapists, professionals, we get in there, and we’re like, “We’re teaching this AAC. They have to use the AAC.” They don’t need to use the AAC. The AAC is just a tool in their toolbox to, again, be autonomous.

Meg: I love that. So, you have tons of great content on your website and on your social media pages, and I will definitely link to all of those in the show notes. And I want to shift to some of your strategies and recommendations, especially for OT’s or speech language pathologists who are new to the AAC world, or maybe who’ve been around, but want to refine their understanding of how can we use AAC for autonomous communication. And one of the things that you’ve brought up a few times is robust AAC. Tell me more about that.

Kate: So, robust AAC means lots and lots of words, right? We’ve all different kinds of words. So, pronouns, verbs, not just nouns. For me, robust AAC means having access to grammatical markers. So, being able to, you know, add ‘-ing’ and add ‘-ed’, to talk about things that are happening or already happened. It means having access to pre-programmed messages. So, we talked a lot about generative language, and it’s super important, but there are times where pre-programmed messages are appropriate. So, self-advocacy, or messages that I use frequently that I need to be able to do efficiently, sometimes self-talk too is another one of those. So, that should be part of a robust AAC system. And then an AAC system should always have access to an alphabet or a keyboard with word predictions, because without it, and without good literacy instruction, our AAC users are limited to what words we’ve decided or the system has in it. So, that’s always a piece. And then, you know, a good system also is accessible to the learner and supports them in conversation. There’s always that piece of how do they access it, and how does it support them in terms of a back-and-forth communication.

Meg: So, Kate, is a robust AAC system always technologically-based?

Kate: No, a robust AAC system can be non-electronic, or light tech, or high tech. The majority of AAC systems that meet the criteria for robust and up being high tech. But there are systems that PODD are available in a non-electronic form, as well as high tech. That’s one of the misconceptions about that system. But they offer communication books that are as robust as any high tech device, so, and sometimes that’s a really good fit for some learners who are a little overwhelmed by the technology or the sensory stuff that comes with the technology. So, there are a variety of options that meet robust AAC.

Meg: Talk to me about picture exchange and object exchange.

Kate: Yeah… I’m not a fan. I don’t think that will surprise anybody. I think that — so, embedded in a lot of picture exchange teaching protocols are physical prompting. So, first and foremost, I think that it doesn’t respect body autonomy, doesn’t respect communication autonomy. I think the other thing around object and picture exchanges is we’re often selecting a very small set of — often, nouns that the individual can choose from, which does not — it’s not a language system, right. It may be a communication system if they experience it that way, but it’s not a language system in the sense that it will grow their language. There are folks that will argue it teaches communicative initiation, but I would counter that we can do that with robust AAC too. So, all the things that can be achieved with those picture exchange or object exchange can be achieved with robust AAC.

The other thing that I would just say in my experience with working with lots and lots of AAC users is the first words that they decide that they want to say are never the ones that we expect, right. So, the things that really are most meaningful for them always surprise us. The chances are that when we set up an object or picture-based exchange system, we’re not going to be able to capture that, and it’s so important that those first words are important to the learner, not just what we perceive as.

The last thing I’ll say about those, because I could go on and on, is that often with the items that we have on a picture exchange or object exchange system, are things that they are probably already expressing using their multi-modal communication. So, we’re not necessarily teaching them new communication skills, we’re just shifting the format in how they’re doing it, and why, right? What we’re doing there is telling them that their communication isn’t valid unless it’s done in the way that we have asked them to do it; which, you know, again, we’re trying to teach them to be autonomous communicators, and that that really goes against it. So, I could go on and on on that topic, but…

Meg: I know a lot of people who listen to the podcast have this experience of, like, “Oh, shoot. I’ve been doing this, but I’ve never looked at it through that lens,” and I have these responses too when I do these podcasts interviews. I used to use a lot of object exchange in my work with young kids with the idea that it was helping them initiate and direct their communication, to usually ask for more bubbles or more snack, or whatever it was. And when you said they were probably communicating that in another way, they were. They absolutely were, and it was just one more way that I and others are saying, “Actually, you need to do this in a way that’s more like what we expect.” It’s just another way of sort of teaching masking or imposing neurotypical styles and culture on to our autistic clients.

Kate: Right. Right, a hundred percent.

Meg: We hear the phrase a lot in talking about non-speaking autistic kids, presuming competence, and you use the phrase, presumed potential. What does that mean, and what implications does it have?

Kate: So, ‘presumed potential’ is a phrase that comes from [38:45 Name], who is another AAC specialist who is really big on autonomy as well. And when I say ‘presumed potential’, I’m saying I’m not necessarily assuming that you have skills already, but I know that you can learn, and I’m happy to meet you wherever you are. So, sometimes I think that — and I don’t think that was the intention of the phrase ‘presumed competence’ — but I think for a lot of people, they hear that, particularly people from a behavioral perspective, and they think that presume competence means we are presuming that they are totally competent with lots and lots of skills already. And for some individuals that’s true, right, but I find that ‘presumed potential’ meaning, you know, “I’m here to teach you, and I believe that you can learn, and I’m open to whatever you can do now,” is a phrase that I have a little bit more success with when I have that conversation with teams, because there isn’t that layer of response to the term ‘presumed competence’. So, I, you know, I am 100% in line with the term ‘presumed competence’ and in the way it’s intended, but I just find that that ‘presumed potential’ allows me to have the conversations I want to have around teaching AAC.

Meg: I love that. I love that. I love both of those phrases, and it’s really useful to have both of them in our back pocket and in the front of our minds when we’re working with our clients. Any other really important advice to therapists working with folks around AAC?

Kate: Yeah. I think the — probably what I would add is that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. It’s a long-term process, both for us as professionals learning, and for our learners. It really takes the long-term view. We have to be thinking about these if we are working with kids, where they’re going to be as adults, and what do they need, and how do we keep options as open for them as possible. So, you know, as professionals who may not follow, you know, I’ve had — I’ve been lucky enough to follow some kids for a long time and see kind of what the payout is, but for professionals who may only work with a learner for a short period of time, to know that the foundation that you’re laying, it will pay off and, you know, understanding that there are small steps at any step of the way, but you look back and think, “Wow, how far our learners have come.” So, just patience with ourselves, patience with our learners, and knowing that we kind of, we need to stay the path and think about the long term.

Meg: Thank you, Kate. So, of everything that we’ve talked about today, and we’ve talked about a lot, if there’s one thing that you hope therapists listening to this podcast today will start doing, or do differently, or think about differently, what is that one takeaway?

Kate: Provide robust AAC. Presume potential. And model without pressure, right. Use that AAC to connect with learners, because connection and relationship is really what it’s all about.

Meg: I love that your one takeaway was three things. I was wondering which one you were going to pick.

Kate: [Laughs] In one big sentence. I figured if it all fit in a sentence, it’s one thing.

Meg: [Laughs] Well, you know, I’ll allow you your autonomous communication.

Kate: Thank you.

Meg: Kate, tell us what you’re working on now, and where we can find you and your projects online.

Kate: So, I post on social media, primarily Facebook and Instagram as The AAC Coach, at @theAACcoach. My website is, so that’s where you’ll find me the most. I’m currently working on training materials for parents and professionals, so I’m hopeful, hopefully that’s coming in between all my other work. But yeah, that’s where you’ll find me.

Meg: Thank you, Kate. Great.

[Ending intermission]
I hope you enjoyed this interview with Kate. I know I learned so much from her and I am thrilled to check out her course when it is ready later this summer or early in the fall. Again, you can join the waitlist for her course so that you don’t miss it. at And I heard from so many of you after the last episode with Rachel Dorsey on social differences that you absolutely cannot wait to check out her course on strengths-based goal writing for school-based OT’s and speech language pathologists. There’s also a waitlist for Rachel’s course. You can find that at

[Ending music]
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