Serving during COVID-19: AAC outreach services

Abygail Marx

The Communication Development Program (CDP) is an outreach program of the Waisman Center UCEDD at University of Wisconsin, Madison. This program was developed over 30 years ago in partnership with the Dane County Department of Human Services, and specifically the Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IDD) unit. The mission of CDP is to enhance community participation, health, safety, and self-determination for individuals with disabilities through specialized augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) and assistive technology (AT) services.

During the current COVID-19 health emergency and Wisconsin’s Safer-at-Home order, many individuals with disabilities who use AAC to communicate are experiencing even more difficulty staying connected with their family and friends over phone and video-calling tools. Being able to use both low-tech AAC strategies and Speech Generating Devices (SGDs) over these remote communication methods adds a layer of complexity and technological problem solving.

CDP therapists Abygail Marx, Cat Kanter, and Annette Stone, have been able to quickly shift thier in-person practice from going to individuals’ home, school, work, or community environments, to providing essential AAC training and outreach services over Webex videoconferencing. This platform has allowed CDP staff a secure way to connect with our clients, their families, and support teams. In addition to providing our typical services through this method, CDP staff have also flexed to provide supports for how individuals use their AAC systems over these remote communication methods. Here are some examples of specific supports we’ve been able to provide for our clients, families, and teams.

Several of our school-age clients who are now receiving curriculum and services through remote learning have experienced difficulty using their AAC systems to participate and communicate. CDP staff have coordinated Webex meetings with the client, their family members, and their school staff to help teach important communication partner strategies around cuing and prompting, wait time, being a responsive communication partner, and modeling language and communication on the AAC system. We have shifted to a specific focus of how to use these strategies over videocalls and remote learning.

For one client who was trying out potential job sites for after high school, CDP staff have been able to work with the client, family, and team to identify upcoming job site trials, identify key vocabulary and communication interactions for that environment, and begin practicing some virtual, staged interactions over Webex.

Many clients may be having difficulty understanding and/or communicating about the situation with COVID-19. CDP staff have been able to help customize vocabulary in their communication systems to include important language for talking about what’s happening and their feelings around these changes. For example, words like “coronavirus,” “quarantine,” and “contagious” are often not yet included in standard AAC systems. Even for words that are already in systems, such as feelings, describing, and medical/health words, clients need support to use them to functionally communicate about this situation. By adding words and modeling how we talk about these topics in natural interactions, CDP is helping clients, families, and teams develop important communication skills, reduce anxiety, and feel supported and connected.

The Waisman Center has compiled many COVID-19 resources for individuals with disabilities, their families, and providers at Some of these resources that specifically support communication for individuals with IDD include communication boards, social stories, visual supports, and video models to help individuals across all ages and diagnoses and their families cope with and understand the current situation.