Total Communication: What, Why & How?

Total Communication: What, Why & How? by Paul Simeone

Total Communication: What, Why & How? by Paul Simeone

We are all Total Communicators. We talk, gesture, wink, text, etc.—we are not limited to one particular method of communication. By utilizing Total Communication methodology, our immediate goal is to encourage communication; our long term goal is to help people acquire modes of communication that will allow them to advocate for themselves in as many contexts as possible.

What is Total Communication?

A strengths-based treatment approach that seeks to honor all attempts at communication. Individuals with complex communication needs are encouraged to use the mode of communication that is most natural to them.

Why Is This Method Beneficial?

Total communication reinforces communicative intent and initiation. The individual's communication proclivity is not pre-selected or mandated by the communication partner. This is important because we want to encourage communication regardless of form.

The concept of total communication is particularly relevant for the ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorders) population, many of whom use augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) as their primary mode of communication. This model supports and honors the person's prefered method of functional communication.

Individuals with ASDs may use any of the following communication modalities:

  • Speech;
  • Gestures;
  • ASL or SEE sign;
  • Visual supports;
  • Low-tech and High-tech AAC systems (e.g., PECS, or speech generating devices); and
  • Written language.

By utilizing this holistic approach, the individual with communication difficulties is not pressured to learn a new modality. In addition, total communication aides components of both expressive and receptive language-often language gains made using one mode generalize to others. It is important to note that the research on the use of AAC has found no negative impact on speech development. In fact, it often helps improve it.

How Is Total Communication Implemented?

1. When a person initiates, we respond. Over time, more functional modes are shaped. For example, an individual could tap you on the shoulder, sign “excuse me” or use an AAC device to gain your attention, and we would accept either of these attempts rather than demand a verbal or other alternative communication mode.

2. Respond, and then model a more functional mode. As the individual begins to see that communicating gets him what he wants (attention, food, bathroom, etc.),  we can increase demands. If the individual wants an apple, we can model by saying, “You want an apple!” and teach him how to say apple—and with time he may. Eventually, the individual will begin to acquire a more understandable mode (e.g., handing over an icon of an apple rather than pointing at the pantry).

3. Teach how to repair communication breakdowns. This is the ultimate goal. By developing and increasing modes of communication, individuals will have an arsenal of tactics in the event of a disconnect. For example, if store clerk does not understand the sign for “cheeseburger,” the individual can alternatively use a high-tech device to convey meaning.

Individuals with complex communication needs benefit from treatment rooted in this theory which supports the use  of multiple modalities to support communication. Eventually, the person may use ASL signs, speak two or three words, and also have a communication device. We accept all of these modes as long as they are functional and can be understood.

Please contact me if you’d like assistance on how to incorporate this concept in your practice or setting.



Paul Simeone, MA, CCC-SLP, ATP