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From left, Claire Cunningham and Allison Bochart comprise the Augmentative and Alternative Communications team at the Douglas Education Service District, overseen by Melissa Taylor-Bowen.

The field of speech-language pathology can seem like a never-ending web of specialties, areas of interest, new challenges, growing technology and research, services and needs.

The Douglas Education Service District team of more than two dozen speech language pathologists and SLP assistants must work as generalists, knowledgeable about as many aspects of the field as possible, in order to serve as many students as possible within its 13 component school districts. Articulation, language, social communication, voice and fluency are just some of the areas in which students receive support.

But a new team has formed to focus solely on students facing some of the greatest communication challenges. Allison Bochart, M.S. CCC-SLP, and Claire Cunningham, SLPA, are working to bring the world of augmentative and alternative communication to Douglas County.

“It’s a unique, specialized area of the field, and Allison and Claire have had this passion for a long time,” said Melissa Taylor-Bowen, Douglas ESD speech coordinator and SLP.

When Bochart and Cunningham talk about their desire to bring AAC to Douglas County, their eyes begin to tear up with emotion.

Cunningham had an aunt with a degenerative disease that left her unable to speak. Cunningham, who is also a certified teacher, introduced her aunt to a computer app that allowed her to express her needs and thoughts. Bochart, who is certified through the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), was deeply affected by a class she took in graduate school, during which she was able to converse with adults who had been “written off” as unable to communicate but through AAC were now able to share their life stories.

“I can only imagine not being able to communicate,” Bochart said. “And so a little kid not being able to say what their favorite color is, or as a parent, not being able to know where my child hurts, that’s hard to swallow, that’s hard to think about.”

According to the ASHA, augmentative and alternative communication is geared toward “individuals with severe expressive communication disorders (i.e., those characterized by severe impairments in speech-language, reading, and writing.” The field incorporates a range of low-tech, high-tech, multi-modality communication and communication supports.

It’s a specialty that continually evolves, requiring individuals who are able to focus time on keeping up with the latest research and technology. Using AAC with students also requires constant assessment and reassessment as a student’s abilities evolve.

“The needs in the county were very clear,” Taylor-Bowen said, “evidenced by parent advocacy groups, evidenced by students with devices or without devices. I think although we’re all generalists – we have to have a broad-based knowledge – there’s a particular skill set that AAC involves, which includes technology, which includes being able to assess a student for where they’re at, but also where they could be.”

Taylor-Bowen and her speech services department decided last year to focus on creating an AAC team. Bochart and Cunningham began their work with a “soft start” in one classroom to slowly explore how to best serve the needs of students, teachers and parents.

The AAC team then developed a referral process for this school year that can be flexible for each district.

“Our whole staff has exhibited so much teamwork in order to serve kids and be flexible for Allison and Claire to be able to dedicate time to the AAC program,” Taylor-Bowen said. “It truly is a special group.”

Cunningham said the AAC program has been both rewarding and challenging.

“It’s a program that has needed to happen, because there’s so much need in Douglas County and the resources are always at a premium,” she said.

Bochart credits Taylor-Bowen for working diligently with responsibility to all districts, students and staff to put the AAC team together.

Progress, she said, has already been made.

Working in partnership with staff from a local school district, for example, the AAC team has shown high levels of success taking a student from only requesting particular items to a student who now uses his AAC system to communicate his ideas, share information, ask questions and socialize with others. He not only has shown an increase via his AAC system but is verbalizing targeted words, which he was never able to do before.

“His parents are thrilled he is starting to verbalize ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad,’ which truly means the world to them,” Bochart said. “The school team continues to work on the word ‘love,’ in hopes he will be able to tell his parents ‘I love Dad’ or ‘I love Mom.’ The school team truly has shown great skill, dedication and investment in helping this student be a true communicator in all aspects.”

Chelsea Duncan is a communications specialist with the Douglas Education Service District.

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