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How to Encourage Generalization in AAC Learners

Generalization is when a communicator can apply a skill in different contexts and settings. According to Stokes & Baer, 1977, Generalization is ‘the occurrence of a behavior under different conditions than when the behavior was initially taught, including across multiple people, settings, and time’.

We cannot assume that communicators with developmental disabilities and social communication disorders will be able to generalize. They may demonstrate their proficiency in a skill. But they may not be able to apply that skill in a different setting or context. 

Say, a communicator learns to say ‘Thank You’ when someone helps her in the classroom. But if someone helped her at the park, she may not say ‘Thank You’. This is because she has understood ‘Thank You’ as something that’s said to only those at school.

Generalization in AAC Learning

The Significance of Generalization

How many different environments, contexts, and situations do we utter a word in?

Say, we are teaching the word ‘No’ so that the communicator can refuse when a non-favourite food item is offered. 

We want the communicator to be able to refuse an activity and answer Yes/No questions with their knowledge of the word. Moreover, they should be able to use this word beyond the classroom or the environment they are taught in. We also want them to use it everywhere they would need to refuse/reject something. 

It’s not humanly possible to teach how to use a word in all the settings/situations they are applicable in. So, it becomes important for us to provide instruction with variables such as partners, materials, environments, and cues.

Promoting Generalization

Here are a few ways in which we can support communicators to apply a skill beyond the environment in which they acquired it –

Mix It Up

For example, a communicator may use the word ‘apple’ to label the fruit but may not use it to request it. We may also see a lack of transfer from one communication function to another.

By teaching a word in multiple contexts and situations, we enable them to use it however and wherever possible. 

This is more true for teaching core vocabulary

  • Identify different opportunities throughout the day to use a core word. (mealtime, playtime, etc)
  • Find out different communication partners the communicator can use the word with.  (Peers, Siblings, Parents, etc)
  • Identify different environments to use the word. (Home, School, Park, etc)
  • Make a list of different functions the word can be used for (Request, Reject, Label, etc)
  • Identify different communicative contexts (Pause, verbal prompts, etc.)
Go Natural

We may find that communicators are not using a skill they acquired in a classroom setting in everyday situations. This is because they may have become dependent on a certain cue from a certain communication partner. Or it could be because they had not observed the skill being used in a different situation. So, they had no idea that the word could be used elsewhere too.

Use natural settings as opportunities to promote generalization. 

For example, during playtime, encourage the communicator to ask two of his peers what toy they liked?

Ask them what book they’d like to read in the library.

Encourage parents to use ‘what’ around the house too. 

What do you want to watch now?

Once the communicator learns to generalize the word, fade prompts so that they learn to apply the skill with different, fewer, or no prompts.

Teamwork Makes the Dream work

We need a collaborative effort for the communicator to be able to be able to apply a skill in different environments and with different communication partners.

Involve the dad, mom, siblings, etc so that communicators learn to generalize the word with different communication partners and at different settings.

Teach peers how to respond to a communicator’s attempts according to the context. 

Moreover, we need to have gym teachers, music instructors, therapists, paraprofessionals, and other potential communication partners on board.


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