Friday, September 23, 2011

Opportunities for Success with Switches by @SENICT #assistivetech #augcomm #spedchat

Many years ago my kindergarten teacher, Miss Pinder thrust a pencil into my tiny hands and asked me to draw a picture. From that first day in school, every one of my teachers since has encouraged me to use pencils, then pens to write and draw things at every opportunity. Why? Because Miss Pinder and the other teachers knew that if I learned how to use a pencil I would have a tool that I could use to share my ideas, thoughts, opinions and feelings with the wider world. Miss Pinder gave me a tool I could use to communicate. It has served me well.

Take a moment now to think about the students in your class who use switches. How do they share their ideas, thoughts, opinions and feelings? They use their switches in the same way that I used my pencil. The difference of course is that I got to use my pencil fifty times a day at school and at home. How often do our pupils get to use their switches?

For this group of students using a switch will be their only way to interact with their world, their only tool for communication, for sharing ideas, and for taking part. For some it will be their voice. Strange then how little time is spent practicing this important skill.

To become a proficient switch user takes practice and as parents, educators and therapists we need to engineer our day to provide as many meaningful opportunities to do this as we can… at school and at home.  Here are a few ideas and resources to help get you started.

Choosing a Switch

There are many different types of switch on the market and choosing the right one is important is our students are to make progress.  For most learners we need to consider three things.

1.  Size:  The size of the switch determines the target area.  You need to make sure that the switch is big enough for the student to reach and press with a degree of accuracy.  The students gross and fine motor skills will need to be considered.

2.  Color:  Choose a color that the student can see.  This is especially important is the student has some degree of visual impairment.  Remember too that a yellow switch on a yellow table can be difficult to see.  If you are using a switch on a tray or table make sure that the switch is a contrasting colour.

3.  Position:  We need to position the switch where the students can see and reach the switch without difficulty.  This is vitally important if we are using switches with students who have a condition which restricts their movement for example CP.  Remember that your student will be pressing the switch many times during the day, if it is hard work to press it or if it causes pain or discomfort, your student will simply give up.

For most of the students that we may work with choosing a switch will be relatively simple.  A large brightly colored switch placed on the tray or table in front of the learner where they can see and reach it with ease.  If your student has more complex needs and requires specialist switches and mounting systems you should consult a therapist or talk to your school district about having the child formally assessed by an AT professional.

Switch Progression Road Map

This booklet will help you assess and teach switch skills in a structured way.  It is available as a FREE download from the Inclusive Technology site after entering your name and email address.

Big Mack

One of the easiest ways to embed switch use in your teaching.  Record a message, sound or music to support anything you’re doing in your class.  To get you started, this Help Sheet from CENMAC has over 150 ideas on how single message voice output devices could be used

Using Switches at Home

There are lots of switch accessible games that you can play at home for free.  The difficulty is finding them takes time.  Save yourself hours by check out the Switch-Accessible Activities page on the Teaching All Students blog.  It’s one of the best on the internet.

TIP:  If you haven’t got a switch and switch interface at home, remember that almost all switch activities will work by pressing the spacebar.  Find a red marker pen and color the spacebar to make it easier to see.

Buying Software

If you have to buy software, choose something that will work at lots of different levels. Slideshow Maker from Inclusive TLC enables you to make switch activities using your own motivating sounds and images which will work from cause and effect level right through to scanning with two switches.

Miss Pinder made time to for me to practice my pencil skills every single day, she knew the importance of communication. Let’s ensure that our switch users are afforded the same opportunity.

-  Ian Bean (@SENICT)

Ian was a special education teacher for many years at Priory Woods School in the UK where he taught learners with a wide range of severe and complex needs including Autism. Ian is now Lead Consultant at SENICT Consultancy and Training, a company providing services to special education.  You can visit Ian's website at

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