Tutorial recommends family-centered approach for children with limited speech

March 24, 2017

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Two Penn State graduate students, with the assistance of two faculty members, have developed a tutorial for speech-language pathologists designed to better include parents and other family members in communication interventions for children whose speech does not adequately meet their communication needs due to autism or other disorders. 

Such children use augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) systems, which often include computers, tablets or mobile devices. AAC systems help children better communicate with their families and peers.

Kelsey Mandak and Tara O’Neill, doctoral students studying communication sciences and disorders at Penn State, worked with faculty members and co-authors Janice Light and Gregory Fosco, to develop the guide for speech-language pathologists working to develop AAC systems for children. Their work recently appeared in the Augmentative and Alternative Communication Journal.

“Family members are the child’s most frequent and significant communication partners because they interact with the child more than anyone, so ideally we want family members to be able to communicate with the child successfully. By providing family-centered services we can all be on the same team while understanding the priorities of the family, goals of the intervention, and future aspirations for the child,” Mandak said.

Mandak and O’Neill also presented their guide at the 2016 annual American Speech-Language-Hearing Association Convention.  

“There can be limited opportunities for speech-language pathologists to interact with family members on an individual basis because often school-based services are designed with one annual visit with families,” O’Neill said. “That doesn’t give you many chances to establish a relationship with the family, especially when you’re trying to set up a communication system for the child, at which time the input of the family is critical.”

The tutorial, based on Family Systems Theory and Ecological Systems Theory, outlines clinical suggestions and tools to help pathologists take a family-centered approach.

For example, a clinical principle under Family Systems Theory is to recognize family members as experts and central to the child’s life, so a tool Mandak and O’Neill recommended for that principle was the Social Networks Inventory, which helps clinicians identify important and relevant family members and their roles and responsibilities to help pathologists understand the relationships and who is interacting with the child on a daily basis.

“We hope that if speech-language pathologists start providing more effective family-centered services then families and children will recognize the benefits of those services. Research suggests that families will be more satisfied with the services, will view the services as more helpful, and will feel more empowered,” Mandak said.

The concept for the tutorial began to develop while Mandak and O’Neill were enrolled in a human development and family studies course instructed by Fosco, which exposed them to Family Systems Theory. After completing the course, Mandak and O’Neill began working on their framework.

“Ultimately, we want the child to be interacting with their family using AAC. If the AAC intervention is designed to meet the needs of the family, the child will have increased opportunities for communication as an outcome of that,” O’Neill said. 

Last Updated March 24, 2017