At the ATIA conference 2 weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending a presentation by Linda Burkhart, a guru in strategies for children with complex needs. Linda has interesting resources on her website.
Linda reminded me of the importance of letting children develop ”automaticity” when using switches.
This means that children need lots of practice before using a switch becomes an automatic gesture.
As many as 10 000 switch hits!
Think of a toddler learning to walk: the child will take a few steps, fall down, grab furniture, take a few more steps. It takes a lot of practice to master the skill of walking. We would not expect an 18 month-old to walk perfectly all the time let alone carry a tray, would we? It takes time for a motor skill to become automatic. We need to learn to be more patient with children learning to use a switch and give them lots of opportunities to practice. As many as 10 000 switch hits.
This is particularly true when the task requires thinking, observation or concentration.
If using the switch is hard and is not automatic yet, it means that requires a conscious effort, so the task should be easy cognitively.
Hard physical switch use → Task with little concentration
If the task is hard cognitively, pressing the switch should be easy.
Concentration needed → Easy physical switch use (or no switch)
Simple cause and effect games like starting a YouTube video, making bubbles with a switch-adapted bubblemaker are examples of tasks that require little concentration.
Changing where the switch is placed is one way to make it easier or harder to reach.
Until automaticity is achieved, for tasks that require thinking or when assessing a child’s comprehension, I believe that it is better to ask the child to use other means of communication such as speech, smiles, head movements, eye movements or vocalizations rather than using a switch.
Otherwise, unless the child can tell us, it is hard to know if a mistake is due to difficulty with the switch or not.
To make it easier physically I often like to use switches that are very easy to trigger, especially with children that have weak muscles or have spasticity. Sensitive switches tend to be more expensive and less durable. A few I like to use:
Micro Light (light pressure) MiniBeamer (proximity)
Candy Corn (proximity) Pikobutton (light pressure switch)
Ultra Light switch (light pressure)ASL (proximity)
Once a switch is selected the child needs to be presented with fun, motivating activities and lots of opportunities to practice, ideally many times per day.
Think about it: If automaticity takes 10 000 switch hits, how many days of practice does this mean?