Learning to use switches

Switches can be used by people with physical disabilities to participate in a wide range of activities. However, the skills required to use switches need to be learnt and therefore some support is required by adults and peers. Some people with physical disabilities also have a learning disability and may need a lot of support to learn to use switches. The following is a step-by-step procedure that you can take to develop switch skills in everyone, from simple hit-and-happen through to advanced scanning.

  • [What are switches?]

The scale of learning

What is the difference between hit-and-happen and scanning? Take a look at our [introduction to switches] that explains the difference between adapting a simple toy (hit and happen) through to selecting from many options using just one or two switches (scanning). Every non-speaking individual using switches should have the opportunity to either be scanning or working towards scanning, as this is the only way that someone without speech can learn to communicate a wide range of thoughts, feelings, requests, comments, questions and more.

The following steps are a combined and abridged version of the work published by Linda Burkhart, Ian Bean and Tony Jones, informed by our own successes here at CENMAC.

Step 1 – Get to know the child or young person

You don’t need a switch to begin to understand what motivates a child or young person. Spend some time with the person and their family to discover their favourite toys, sounds, and things to look at. Perhaps they enjoy being picked up, kissed by a family member, or tickled. How does their disability affect their ability to engage in these activities? Do they have a way of asking for what they want? Are they able to see or hear clearly? What reliable movements do they have?

Things you can do

  • Have fun!

Step 2 – Ascertain cause-and-effect

Understanding that the switch does something is an incredibly important step in learning to use switches. Without this understanding switch pressing becomes something that children might do for the sake of it, sometimes known as “swatting.” Once the young person understands that the switch activates the lights, activated the vibrating cushion, prompts mum to tickle them, etc., then we can move on.

At this point we’re not looking to teach the child a new movement for switch access as we want them to fully concentrate on learning cause-and-effect. Therefore at this stage simply use an existing movement.

Things you can do

At this stage you want to focus on short, immediate rewards that are motivating for the individual. If they lose interest, change the activity. Examples include:

  • A talking button that instructs someone to tickle them (for four seconds)
  • A button that turns on a fan or a light or a vibrating therapy cushion (for four seconds)
  • A switch that plays music while it is being held down, and then stops when it is released.

RadSounds – Cause and Effect  app “Momentary Switch play” setting import iPad music

AutoHotKey (Steve Crane)


Step 3 – Find reliable switch sites with one switch that does many things

Once the person understands that the switch does a load of really cool stuff they are likely to put some effort into using movements which they might find difficult. Work around the person’s body to find at least two, if not more, movements that reliable hit the single switch. It doesn’t matter if these seem clumsy or take a while to initiate – we’ll improve these later. Bring lots of activities and have lots of fun.

Things you can do

At this stage you can expand and lengthen the rewards to larger sections of songs, longer periods of tickling or simple video games.

  • A button that plays and pauses songs
  • A button that turns a fan on and off
  • A button used to play simple games

Step 4 – Use two switches that do many things each

Having two switches in two different parts of the body is a bit of a leap that requires coordination, problem solving, sequencing, making choices and a load of other skills. Fortunately, you can learn these skills through fun activities.

Things you can do

At this stage we want to give the young person an option of pressing one of two switches. There won’t necessarily be a ‘wrong’ answer – so let them explore and react accordingly.

  • One button that plays music and another that operates a disco light
  • One button moves a wheelchair platform forward and another reverses
  • Inclusive switches activity

Step 5 – Use two switches that work together to scan

At this point the young person is motivated and coordinated to use two switches. It’s a good time to intdroduce the rather peculiar concept of scanning, which involves one switch interacting with the other. Scanning needs to be taught through errorless means as even adults can get confused as to how it works. Start with lots of games that involve the basics of scanning but where there is no right or wrong answer.

Things you can do

At first it may be difficult to understand that one switch affects the other. That’s why big, obvious cues are needed to confirm this and short scan ranges.

  • Have three people sit in a line. One talking button says “next person” and the next stands and the previous sits. The second talking buttons says “dance” and that person currently standing dances.
  • Build a tower with one button and knock it down with the other.
  • Use a switch-accessible joke box to play your favourite jokes.


Step 6 – Use to switches to scan

By providing scanning we are providing choice, and we’re able to interpret that choice as an intentional and meaningful way to communicate. Playing computer games that involve scanning to particular cells to ‘win’ is a good start, as is beginning to interact differently to utterances from the communication aid. At this point we assume that if someone scans on the communication aid and says something – they mean it and we act accordingly.

Things you can do:

  • Switch accessible YouTube that forces you to select the “activation” to play the video
  • Put words together and build sentences using a switch-accessible literacy app
  • Assemble symbols and speak sentences using a communication aid app
  • Switch-accessible YouTube that allows you to navigate the video using switches