There are many places within the communication process (outlined in the diagram below) where a communication breakdown can occur as a result of misunderstandings and confusion for both individuals with and without complex communication needs.
Understanding the communication process, how we can support individuals with complex communication needs to develop the skills needed during each stage of the process, and the potential barriers that exist at each stage positions us to (1) engineer the environment/situation/context for communication growth and success, (2) understand and implement plans related to how we ourselves and others can be more effective communication partners, and (3) support the individual to become a more effective communicator.
Context: The context is the environment that the communication occurs in. Communication partners and their beliefs about the competence of the individual with complex communication needs will impact the communication process. When we understand all actions of another as intentional, we create the context for communication to occur. Some other thoughts to consider in regards to the communication context for individuals with complex communication needs include:
What communication channel is being used by the people within the context? Is the same channel being used by all people in the context? Is the person who is expected to use AAC getting input through verbal language only or a combination or verbal language and AAC?
Does the individual with complex communication needs have access to a language system that will allow him/her to communicate a variety of messages for a variety of purposes or has he/she been restricted to only being able to say a handful of things?
Are there activities happening in the environment that require interaction and generative communication or is the environment set up in a way that people are working independently with a large portion of the communication happening being someone directing another person on what to do next?
"If the motivation to communicate is greater than the physical effort, cognitive effort and time required then communication will occur. If not, no message will be generated." (Bruce Baker)If effort is always greater than motivation for an individual, communication development will not happen. When we force a person to communicate something they are already able to communicate effectively with an approach that is less efficient, we are creating the condition where the effort to communicate may be greater than the motivation to communicate. It is important to honour and recognize all the ways another person communicates at the same time as modeling a method that will eventually allow that person to communicate across all contexts and with all people.
Message: The message is what the individual is going to communicate. It could be a question, a comment, a request, a story, an answer, a thought/idea, a rejection, a greeting, a statement...etc. The message is originally what a person wants to say and as it moves through the communication process there are a lot of places where the message can become something different. Sometimes it is difficult to come up with possible messages for a given context. When an individual has a communication device or some other type of visual support, they are able to reference it for possible ideas related to messages that make sense in a given context.
Encoding: This is the process of taking the information that is in one's head and transforming it in to some form that can be understood by others. For those who use spoken words, this simply means putting ideas in to words and saying them. For those who use AAC, there is an complexity involved as it involves not just connecting thoughts and words but connecting thoughts and words and the alternative way to communicating (pictures, written words, sign language...etc.).
For obvious reasons, this is the stage of the communication process that we focus on when trying to implement AAC plans. This is about using the system to generate the message so it makes sense to put our efforts in to supporting this but if we only support this without intentional work for the rest of the communication process, it seems we would have difficulty achieving the goal of autonomous communication.
Channel: This is how the message is transferred - gestures, sign language, visuals, device...etc. The channel is often multi-modal. For individuals that use AAC, barriers related to tone, facial expression, gestures can come in to play. It is important to remember to support a person with complex needs to use multiple channels to communicate in the same way that we all do even if their channels may have to be adapted in some way.
Decoding: This is where the communication partner comes in as decoding is about the communication partner's interpretation of the message. When we are working to support the communication of an individual with complex communication needs, part of the work involves supporting communication partners with understanding and interactions.
Receiver: This is the communication partner. Receiving a message through a channel different from spoken words requires the partner to keep certain things in mind: allow time for the communicator to generate their message, do not put words in to the mouth of the speaker by finishing the statements they start, how to ask for clarification when you don't understand...etc. Developing these skills in communication partners should be part of a communication plan.
Feedback: This is the reaction/response to the message by the communication partner. Was the intended message delivered? Did the intended message create the intended action? Did the message serve to extend the social interaction that was taking place? This part of the process again reflects the importance of thinking about both the communicator and the communication partner when supporting the development of communication skills.