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Spring Into Transition Planning

Updated: Apr 30, 2023

Spring is a time of change. Change is uncomfortable, but it is a necessary and natural part of life. People tend to like to cling to what is familiar to them because it is predictable, and they know what to expect. However, if we cling to what we already know and have experienced for a while, further growth will be halted. Successful and meaningful change occurs when it is accompanied by thorough planning. Planning is crucial for those with complex communication needs.

As the end of the school year approaches, the time to plan for the future of learners with complex communication needs also approaches.

  • Because of the unique needs and skills of those with complex communication, such planning requires extra time and effort to ensure that the decisions that are made regarding the future of the communicator are the most appropriate ones and propel the communicator towards the life which they and their family envision for them.

In general, the goal of the communicator is for them to have their basic wants and needs fulfilled, be respected, and understood by those around them, be surrounded by people with whom they have relationships, express themselves and show the world who they are, be autonomous people, and contribute to society. Such things build upon each other as shown in the below graphic:

Each of the levels of the hierarchy relates to a communication function which include expressing wants and needs, transferring information, establishing and maintaining social closeness, and displaying appropriate social etiquette (Beukelman & Light, 2020). Therefore, the communicator’s needs can only be met if each level of the hierarchy is present in their life and the communication functions are fulfilled by the communicator. The relationship between each level of the hierarchy and communication functions is:

  • care for basic wants and needs is to expressing wants and needs

  • respect and understanding is to displaying appropriate social etiquette

  • people and relationships is to establishing and maintaining social closeness

  • self-expression is to transferring information

  • autonomy is to expressing wants and needs and transferring information

  • societal contributions is to a combination of all four of the communication functions

The top three levels of the hierarchy are the most relevant ones to transition planning, although the other three levels are also important to be taken into consideration before and after initial decisions about next steps for the communicator have been made to ensure that all the communicator's needs are fulfilled.

  • If the communicator has any unfulfilled needs, it is crucial that their support team develops an action plan to get such needs fulfilled prior to the time of the transition to ensure a smooth transition.

Transition planning is a team effort. The communicator needs to be involved in the transition planning process. Decisions about them are not to be made for them, but rather with them.

Team members should first gather information regarding the communicator’s interests, dislikes, and skills through observation of the communicator’s affect during activities and interviewing team members. Once the team synthesizes and analyzes the information gathered, it is time to get the communicator involved in the decision-making process.

While decision making and priority setting may be a challenge for some with complex communication needs, there are a few tools to be used to enhance their participation in transition planning and foster their choice and control:

  • Talking Mats - This is a great tool for discussing priorities and/or goals with those who have complex communication needs as it simplifies the discussion by providing visual supports (Beukelman & Light, 2020). The communicator shares preferences, priorities, and opinions about options presented to them and places the options in one of three columns: positive/happy, negative/unhappy, and neutral. This is not a decision-making tool, but it is a tool to discover interests, preferences for how they are supported, who best supports them and who they feel closest to and of importance in their life (verify communication circles), what they want and need to communicate (communication functions), what jobs they may be interested in, what life milestones they want experience, etc. You may involve a friend, peer, or sibling in the Talking Mats activity to model use of the Talking Mats and make it engaging for the communicator. Talking Mats may need to be used on separate occasions to dig deeply into the communicator’s interests and preferences.

  • Rating Scales - This is a great tool for discussing priorities and/or goals with those who have complex communication needs who have developed comprehension skills (Beukelman & Light, 2020). The facilitator presents the options for next steps that their support team developed, and the communicator uses the rating scale to rate each of the options (like, dislike, and neutral).

  • Choices between activities - This is a good strategy for emergent communicators and those who have severe cognitive and linguistic deficits as they can choose between two photographs or objects that represent activities to determine their goals and/or priorities (Beukelman & Light, 2020). The facilitator presents visual representations of the options for next steps their support team has developed, and the communicator chooses the one they want to be their next steps.

Regardless of what tool and/or strategy used to involve the communicator in the transition planning process, the communicator expresses the final decision made by their support team. Whether it is picking what electives a learner with complex communication needs takes next school year or what they do after their high school years, the communicator is to be an active and involved participant in the decision-making process. It is their life, and they have the right to decide what they do with it...and they can do so if provided with the appropriate opportunities, support, tools, and strategies!

How will you spring your communicator into the transition planning process?


Hannah Foley, B.A. is the Content Writer at Forbes AAC. She has over four years of experience in AAC education and implementation, in addition to over 24 years of personal experience using AAC and AT tools to navigate society as someone who has a (dis)ability. Hannah is dedicated to providing quality training and implementation resources to support teams to facilitate the integration of AAC into all of life's activities to maximize the communicative skill development and meaningful engagement of those who use AAC.

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