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Learning to use switches

LittleMack Choice
LittleMack Choice

Switches can be used by people with physical disabilities and/or learning difficulties to participate in a wide range of activities. Some switch activities require the simple press of a button (to activate an animated toy, for example). Others require you to press the button at a specific time (e.g. some simple videos games). More advanced activities require you to choose from two buttons (e.g. choosing from two items). And finally, in order to be able to communicate independently, you need to learn something called scanning. Scanning gives the user the abilitiy to choose from more options than they have switches. So, for example, they could use just two switches to select from thousands of symbols and the 26 letters of the alphabet – all achieved through scanning.

Every non-speaking individual using switches should have the opportunity to either be scanning using a communication aid, or working towards scanning through motivating activities. Unless an alternative access method can be found, e.g. eye-gaze, this is the only way that switch users can communicate a wide range of thoughts, feelings, requests, comments, questions and more. It’s also needed to develop essential literacy skills.

iTalk 2
iTalk 2

Some new switch users will be able to jump straight to using scanning without any teaching involved. But many children and those with intellectual impairments would benefit from activities that teach these skills.

The following is a step-by-step procedure that you can use to develop switch scanning skills in everyone, starting at simple hit-and-happen and progressing through to advanced scanning.

Note that this guide does not include any stages for learning switch timing as this is not a required skill for developing two-switch scanning, and may slow down the process of reaching this stage. For information on timing activities see the Inclusive Technology Switch Progression Roadmap.

The scale of learning

What is the difference between hit-and-happen and scanning? Take a look at our switch guide 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).

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 0 – Get to know the child or young person (no switches)

iPad with switch interface and two switches
iPad with switch interface and two switches

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

  • Ask lots of questions
  • Consider activities that are age-appropriate for the child, and culturally appropriate for the whole family
  • Have fun with whatever motivates the child or young person

Step 1 – 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 when a switch is presented to them, sometimes known as “swatting.” Once the young person understands that the switch activates the lights, or vibrating cushion, or prompts mum to tickle them, etc., then we can move on to the next step.

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

Bear with two switches
Bear with two switches

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) (e.g. a BIGMack)
  • A button that turns on a fan or a light or a vibrating therapy cushion (for four seconds) (e.g. using a Switch Latch and Timer)
  • A switch that plays music while it is being held down, and then stops when it is released.
    • An iPad app (RadSounds) that can play music while a switch it held, and pause when released.
    • Or you can use an AutoHotKey script in Microsoft Windows.

Step 2 – 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 (e.g. using a JoyCable interface set to play and pause)
  • A button that turns a fan on and off (e.g. using a Pretorian iClick)
  • A button used to play simple games (e.g. HelpKidzLearn)

Step 3 – 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

Jellybean Switch
Jellybean Switch

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.

What if my student can’t use two switches?

Remember that single switch scanning requires significantly more attention and cognitive resources than two-switch scanning. Additionally, relying on a single point of movement to control their world can cause complications in the future. So do try to find to as many switch sites as practical, and do involve an occupational therapist to help. Remember you can ask the family and other people who know the person if they themselves can’t identify movement. There are cases where you will need to use a single switch. In these circumstances consider practicing some games that involve timing before moving onto scanning. For information on timing activities see the Inclusive Technology Switch Progression Roadmap. Further details on this approach will be added here in due course.

Step 4 – Use two switches that scan or build (errorless)

Jellybean Switch Mounted
Jellybean Switch Mounted

At this point the young person is motivated and coordinated to use two switches. It’s a good time to introduce the rather peculiar concept of scanning, which involves one switch interacting with the other. Scanning needs to be taught through error-less 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. (e.g. LittleMack)
  • Build a tower with one button and knock it down with the other (e.g. Switch Skills for Two set 2)
  • Use a switch-accessible joke box to play your favourite jokes (e.g. GoTalk Now Lite)

Step 5 – Use two switches to scan with more functionality

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:

  • String Switch
    String Switch

    Switch-accessible YouTube that forces you to select the “activation” to play the video (e.g. Special Bites)

  • Put words together and build sentences using a switch-accessible literacy app (e.g. Clicker)
  • Assemble symbols and speak sentences using a communication aid app
  • Switch-accessible YouTube that allows you to navigate the video using switches (e.g. Tar Heel Game Play)

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