A closer look at ROCC Domain 3:

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Initiate AAC

Our next featured domain discussion is around Domain #3, INITIATION. 

The goal: To initiate communication in a way that is accepted and recognised by others when the individual has something to say.

The key points for this goal are that initiation is: 

  • recognisable
  • socially appropriate, and
  • across environments and communication partners

Domain 3 is all about actively communicating when you have a thought, rather than when somebody asks you something. 

As we note within the ROCC assessment, initiation is defined as the way that an individual gets the attention of their communication partner to signal that they have a message. It’s a signal to say “I want you to know that I have a message” or “I have hatched an idea in my head that I want to share”. It may happen before a word, sign or symbol is used or simultaneously but does not necessarily require a word. Gayle Porter has integrated awareness of initiation into her PODD training and information.

We initiate when we want to start an interaction, or if we choose to take another turn after someone else. We initiate when we have something to say, not when someone else asks us a question. That’s just called answering. It’s ok to answer questions some of the time, but this domain is focused on the times when the person hatches an idea and has an autonomous message to convey. 

Nearly all of the time (with only some very rare exceptions), humans initiate communication in some way to those around them. For individuals with communication challenges, the trick may be allowing them enough time to initiate and/or noticing an initiation that is less conventional or obvious. At other times, an initiation may be disguised as a behaviour that may not be considered socially appropriate.  

Some examples of initiation might be:

  • standing near the door waiting for someone to open it
  • taking your hand to turn the page of a book
  • making a voice sound
  • pinching or scratching 
  • tapping on your leg
  • pausing within an activity and looking at you
  • coming up for a cuddle or 
  • tapping on a PODD or device without selecting a specific message
The end goal:

To be an autonomous communicator, and understood by a range of familiar and unfamiliar partners, our initiations need to be recognisable. To be a competent communicator, our initiations need to be socially appropriate and relevant to the situation. If our initiations aren’t recognised, then others don’t notice that we have something to say. If not socially appropriate, they are less likely to listen. If this happens, then initiations may be extinguished rather than encouraged

At higher levels of competency, initiation can get more sophisticated and sometimes more complicated. Sometimes we initiate just by starting to talk, sign or point to symbols. Usually though we also indicate just prior to this with our facial expressions, a body gesture or in some situations putting our hand up or waiting in a way that indicates we are expecting a turn. An example of this might be waiting expectantly at a counter in a store, or cafe. We look at the server to show we have something to say, but wait patiently until we are offered a turn. 

So, in Domain 3, the following descriptors would describe an individual as emergent, transitional or independent/competent. 


At an emergent level, initiations are not easily recognised by communication partners. They may be hard to notice, or may not be socially appropriate and seen as a challenging behaviour that many see as something to extinguish rather than to encourage.


At this level, the individual shows more recognisable and socially appropriate initiations, even just some of the time at first, then moving to most of the time without needing reminders or coaching from others.  


Competent initiation is dependent on the situation, the partner and the message. At this level, a person can initiate in a range of situations in a way that most partners (familiar and unfamiliar) would recognise that they have something to say. 

Why is this domain important?

Without initiation that is recognised or accepted, a person cannot express autonomous thought. Neither can they do this if the communication partner does not give them an opportunity. If we create situations where individuals are prompt dependent and only use language if we ask them a question or prompt them to say something, then they are less likely to initiate their own messages.

What can I do?

One of the most useful strategies to support initiation or to notice when an emergent communicator is initiating is to pause and watch. Be sure to give your person space to initiate before you jump in. While waiting, watch for signs that they have a message in their head. Be very careful not to expect or pressure them to say something, just give them an opportunity. When you do notice something, tell them what you saw, and model a means to initiate they might be working toward. Sometimes it’s important to step right back and watch, rather than to drive the interaction. 

More often than not, individuals we work with are initiating more than we realise. We often get focused on teaching them things, rather than listening to what they might be saying, and watching for times when they do have something to tell us.  

At a transitional level, the strategies may revolve more around modelling the way you would like to encourage them to initiate, and coaching them to use their recognisable and socially appropriate method in more situations and with more partners. For example, someone who bangs their hand on the communication book to initiate may be understood by people who know them well, but others may just think they are banging their hand, or protesting. If an individual is not yet initiating in a way that unfamiliar partners can recognise, then consider some instructions that are easily seen to explain this until they have refined their initiation to one that is more universally recognised. Just having a symbol or wearing a wristband that says “I’ve got something to say, please get my (communication system)” isn’t enough. The individual will need to learn how to draw attention to it, and convey to the partner that they need to read the message on the wristband, or it will not be effective. Often we can help them learn this by modelling ourselves, or coaching them during their interactions with others. Be sure not to over-prompt though. We don’t want people only initiating when we tell them to do it!!

Recognisable Initiation doesn’t have to be a wristband, it might be a tap on the shoulder, saying “excuse me”, pointing to a symbol, or using some form or speech generating device or sound. 

Wherever possible, we want to work towards a means that is as close to conventional initiation as possible, and one that can be understood and accepted by everyone. 

In many ways, Domain 3 is both simple and complex to score. In the emergent stages we are focused on just establishing a recognisable or appropriate initiation, but in higher levels, we can help people to learn the intricacies of initiation that are dependent on the situation, partner and message. As always, it’s not about the score but the conversation you have to determine the score, and what you do next to ensure the individual has a way to let others know when they have something to say. 


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