Aug. 10, 2020

Students Flourishing in Virtual AAC Classroom with Kate Ahern

Students Flourishing in Virtual AAC Classroom with Kate Ahern

Students Flourishing in Virtual AAC Classroom with Kate Ahern

Apple Podcasts podcast player badge
Spotify podcast player badge
Google Podcasts podcast player badge
Overcast podcast player badge
Castro podcast player badge
PocketCasts podcast player badge
RSS Feed podcast player badge

This is an exciting episode of the show today! Mai Ling and Martyn announce that the new book, Becoming An Exceptional Leader, is now available on Kindle! Additionally, Mai Ling shares a great conversation with educational specialist Kate Ahern. Kate talks about her personal experience with designing and sharing academically-focused group augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) online classes. You don’t want to miss this information-packed interview.

Contact Mai Ling: MLC at

Contact James: James at



Introduction 00:00

If I don't get my daily allotted time to just play with kids and help them to communicate and be a teacher for kids, then then I'm unhappy.


Mai Ling 00:16

Welcome to Xceptional Leaders with Mai Ling and Martyn, where we spotlight high profile topics and amazing people who arae changing the worldview on disability. I'm Mai Ling Chan, and you can find me at


Martyn 00:27

And I'm Martyn Sibley on And today we're gonna be chatting about Mai's interview with Kate Ahern. But before we start there, we have some big news to share, right Mai Ling?


Mai Ling 00:39

Yes, we do. So, Martyn and I, and 12 other co-authors are launching the digital version of our upcoming book called Becoming an Exceptional Leader ( on August 5th.


Martyn 00:52

This is so exciting. It's been a long time coming, a lot of hard work and a lot of struggles and delays, particularly around COVID-19. I mean, how, how have you found curating this book? Because you've been driving this baby home, right?


Mai Ling 01:05

Oh, my gosh, yes. So, I initially did this podcast by myself for 52 episodes until I begged Martyn to join me. And he came on in September. And so, in November, I was able to allocate some time to going back through those interviews and finding key people that I could then ask to write one chapter for the upcoming Anthology, and Martyn was one of them. So, thank you for saying, Yes, Martyn.


Martyn 01:30

Pleasure, pleasure.


Mai Ling 01:32

And so, November, December, January, I provided everyone with a rubric because you know, me I'm super organized, basically was like, This is the questions I wanted you to answer. This is the areas and points that I want you to think about and share. There's areas about resources and challenges and gifts, you know, things that people didn't know that they were going to achieve, you know, whether it was lifelong achievements, or something personal, and then resources. It's just amazing. And, of course, a link to their episode, where they're interviewed for the podcast with me. But then we were supposed to launch in April, and we had the big whammy. But we also had some like writer's block, which is normal. So, if you're anybody's thinking about putting together an anthology, bringing together a couple of writers make sure you give them at least four weeks extra for what you originally thought you did. Would you say that Martyn, did you need extra time when you were writing?


Martyn 02:23

Yeah, I would. So, I think I wanted to, first of all, congratulate you because I think to have such a vision and insight to create something like that it's not an everyday idea. Or maybe there are more people that have ideas like that. But execution is everything, and you spent the time and the energy and you pulled on all the different contacts that you'd obviously spent through those 52 episodes previously, which was no small thing in its own, in its own sense anyway. So yeah, to be able to bring that together, I think is amazing. I was even alluded to some lessons and learnings on the way, on the way and little insights that you would know if you did it, if you ever decided to do it again, that's for another conversation once we've got the first one over the line. So, I think Yeah, just testament to you for, for getting that, you know, to come together so well, as you have, I think sort of speaking on the side of being one of the coauthors. It was amazing timing a bit like when you reached out to me to do the podcast, and I was in this other place that, you know, it's great to be able to co present with you, we've built such a great friendship and relationship through the podcast, it was a bit late with the book that, you know, I have written a book. So, I am a published author. But it was very much the kind of general growing up with a disability and traveling the world with a disability. But it wasn't more recently around my entrepreneurial sort of business experiences, right. And I'll be honest, I don't know, if and how aware I could have been able to create a whole book with only my words. And so, to be able to have this opportunity on a really selfish level was fantastic. And so, it's been great to pull together my own entrepreneurial story. But I think also to point out for the readers perspective, and I think, you know, I won't give away more of what I'd written and what you'd written people need to read the book. We're not going to do any too many spoilers here right, but I do think the value to the reader is even if I had done my own book, they might have been inspired and learned about me, but they've got the benefit of being inspired and learning from multiple how many people is it Mai Ling?


Mai Ling 04:46

There's 14 totals, including you and I and you're absolutely right. You know, we're all so busy, who would have been able to sit down and write an entire book. That's such a great point. Yeah,


Martyn 04:54

But also, the 14 people. It's that 14 stories that have different lessons. And so, I think from the reader perspective, but I'm just plugging it now Mai Ling way, I'm just saying, people


Mai Ling 05:05

Yeah, you're great.


Martyn 05:07

But on the value level, it really is rich in all sorts of insights. And I learned a lot from the other authors and the other chapters. So yeah, I'm excited to download my coffee and read more of the other people as well.


Mai Ling 05:22

Excellent. Well, thank you so much for being a part of it. And yes, please download the book, get it for yourself. It's, it's amazing. And we hope that it adds to all of the information that Martyn and I share with you weekly, and with our guests. So, let's get to the next piece of this, which is just talking about how amazing Kate Ahern is with the classes that she's creating (


Martyn 05:43

So, the interview, right?


Mai Ling 05:45

Yes, so I've been very involved in the augmentative. And assistive communication device area for a while now. And of course, with my new position with Cognixion, where I'm the director of growth and achievement. And Kate is, she has just been an amazing thought leader in this field for years. And she is fearless. Absolutely fearless when it comes to kids, which is funny, because, you know, you've got to get in there, and you've got to grab their attention and maintain their attention. And they just, they love her in person. And so there definitely was, you know, a question of how that was gonna transition over to the virtual space where they literally, you know, are kind of a captive audience, and how is she going to, you know, keep their attention, and then also help them to use their device to integrate and get connected with students. And this episode, this interview is just amazing to hear how excited the kids are to show up every week. So, Martyn, have you had any ever had any experience go, you know, going through your educational years of when you didn't have access to school? So, you know, I know, there are times like maybe physically when you were pulled out of the classroom, and then how was it for you to, you know, re-plug in and get involved again?


Martyn 06:52

Yeah, well, so my schooling was generally unaffected by sort of health or other impacts, there was one time I had back operation to put two titanium rods in my spine to kind of straight out, I had a really bad scoliosis site that involved missing from the kind of May till the end of that that term, sort of before we broke up for the summer holiday. So, I probably missed two months of school. And the way that they sort of got around that was they tried to do some lessons in the hospital, but I was high on painkillers, and it wasn't the best shared learning environment. So, I can't speak so much on my kind of, you know, toted schooling education, I've certainly, as soon as I left university, I suddenly realized how much more I wanted to learn. So, I'm an avid user of online courses, all that kind of stuff. So definitely is a general, pick the thing you want to learn about and go do some general learning and development. I'm all down with the kind of virtual experience, but sort of around disability, again, not so much around speech and language. But obviously, my condition is a physical disability, it's genetic, it's to do with weakening and natural firing of the muscles. And I work with the charity in the UK called SMA UK (, who have been trying to help get information to parents with children with the condition. And this has been very much pushed because of COVID-19. So, before the parents would go into the hospital, you had the physios, the occupational therapists, or the relevant professionals that are able to support those children. And that's all stopped because it's not safe to go to the hospitals and the clinics. So yeah, we've done a couple of webinars I more sort of presented and brought the professionals in and kind of, you know, grilled them with not difficult questions, but kind of you know got them to share what's going on. And it was fascinating that they've been able to monitor the children in particularly around, there's a lot of treatment and drugs sort of support for children in particular with SMA. Looking at if it helps stop the actual flying, it even helps to increase strength. So, this has all been a key part that this treatment has come along. But then you can't do those assessments. So, the virtual world has opened up some solutions in that context. But I think we're seeing it in all contexts that the innovation and disruption of the virtual world is obviously having to be more impactful the last six months than ever, but how about you? Is it something you've used in your day job?


Mai Ling 09:40

Absolutely. So, with Xceptional Ed, we saw that coming a couple years ago, I loved the idea of where you could like learn how to fix your plumbing online. So, we launched that two years ago. And right now, you know, that's where everyone's going for professional learning and then also for caregiver training. It's been it's been amazing and we're also seeing more leaders like yourself are seeing the value of creating these virtual courses so that people can access them because we're not doing conferences anymore. You know, and if they are doing a conference, no one wants to sit through two full days of online conferences. I don't know if you've seen that, but that's popping up everywhere. You know, it's like, oh, gosh, I don't want to do Thursday, Friday, and Saturday on this conference, and then do like, maybe a month later, I've got a whole other Saturday all day long conference. You know, it's, it's not the same as when you're networking in person, and you have lunches with friends, you know, and it's an event. So, you know, we're definitely looking at these offerings, through Xceptional Ed, as a way for presenters like you and exceptional leaders in the disability community to have a way to connect, you know, so super excited. Thank you so much for bringing that up, Martyn. So, we are really excited to share with you the episode with Kate, and to hear just how wonderful her children are doing using AAC virtually. So, you're ready to get to it, Martyn.


Martyn 10:57

Let's get to it.


Mai Ling 11:02

Well, hello, and welcome. I'm really excited to be here with Kate Ahern. She is an absolute leader in the AAC space, you can find her in her enormous Facebook group, which I have to say, AAC Voices ( how many people are in that group right now, Kate?


Kate 11:15

Oh, it's some AAC Through Motivate Model Move Out of the Way ( ACC Voices is my business. It's much, much smaller group. But the AAC Through Motivate Model Move Out of the Way, I think probably pushing 11,000 people


Mai Ling 11:31

Amazing, amazing, especially because this is such a niche community, AAC augmentative and alternative communication where you use devices to be able to express yourself it doesn't even mean talk, you know, we use the word communicate in such a big and broad term. Kate, you are really interesting to me, because I'm usually speaking with speech language pathologists, and that is not your specific background. However, I started out and for our listeners, saying that she's an absolute leader in the field. And so, what I think is really important that is that we start a little bit with your journey of how you got here, and then we'll get into the nuts and bolts of what you're doing in the space. Okay, so if you could share with us, how did you get started in the area of AAC?


Kate 12:15

When I was in high school, I volunteered in a special education classroom in the building. And there was a young man in the classroom who used AAC. And given this was some time ago, he pointed to picture symbols on his wheelchair tray. And we became friends and I did a little personal care attendant work for him and then...


Mai Ling 12:40

How old were you?


Kate 12:42

15 when I started, may be 16, but once I started volunteering in that classroom that was, I mean, that was it. Like all of my career exploration was over. That was what I was gonna do.


Mai Ling 12:55



Kate 12:55

Um, and yeah, I was pretty young. So, he was he got a new talker, he got a PRC so Prentke Romich speech device that was a static display, light talker, using min speak. And it was difficult to use. And one of the things I got to do was help them learn how to use it.


Mai Ling 13:19

And you didn't have any training, any background, any anything.


Kate 13:23

Right. And I was, you know, like, 16 years old.


Mai Ling 13:26



Kate 13:27

So. And then I went to college, I wanted to do intensive, special needs. And I was the only undergraduate in the program, which was a combined five-year, bachelor's and master's program. So, I left after five years with my Master of Science in special education. And just always chose to have classrooms where kids, were using devices, not necessarily all the kids, but at no time in my career, did I not have at least some students using AAC,


Mai Ling 14:05

Okay, so I don't want you to say your age, but for the for the people that are joining us and understand AAC I mean, the year, if you could give us an idea of when you know you were going through college, because that really puts us in perspective.


Kate 14:18

I was in high school in the early 90s. Okay, and I got my master's degree in 99.


Mai Ling 14:25

And this is the infancy of AAC right.


Kate 14:28

Well, I mean, there was a lot to AAC before high tech devices and people have been doing AAC forever. But in terms of formalized AAC systems that many people use the same kind of system and it wasn't all bespoke, right AAC kind of custom stuff. Yeah, that's where it sort of started. You know, I was after the age of bliss symbols, but I'm definitely still in the age when board maker was a book that you photocopied from and hand colored your symbol In lamentable context,


Mai Ling 15:05

And I'm going to bring in the internet like you didn't have Google, right? You're gonna...


Kate 15:09

No, I went through college without Google existing. Yeah.


Mai Ling 15:13

How? No, just kidding.


Kate 15:15

It was Magic. We have this magical place called a library. And we went and we looked at these little drawers and a little tiny card that told us where to go for things.


Mai Ling 15:27

That's right. And we had microfiche. Okay.


Kate 15:31

And the smell of burning microfiche and burning microfilm. Yes.


Mai Ling 15:36

I guess what I'm trying to put together is, you know, an understanding of where you really came from, you know, you were working with technology, low tech, you know, starting technology, and then these new systems at a time when it wasn't what I use, the word is ubiquitous, you know, everywhere, you know, at some point you've been exposed to it. I mean, you were absolutely a pioneer in this area with all of the other people who were, you know, doing it at their own pace, learning it finding out how to make it better.


Kate 16:02

Yeah. And I don't know that I was going to feel like, they're all those definitions for people, if you grew up with the internet, versus if you came to the internet as an adult. And I would say, I'm definitely one of those people who sort of, you know, there was a computer in my home as a child, it was an Apple, two GS, but there was a computer. So, it wasn't like I came into the tech stuff without anything. But it definitely was a field that grew while, I grew. And it sort of happened simultaneously. You know, and as a teacher, I wasn't the one picking the devices necessarily, you know, and we did a lot of devices that we would have considered mid tech. So, things like talk pads, and, you know, cheap talks and 12 button recorded messaging. I mean, we have a lot of that before, you know, the iPad showed up and changed everything,


Mai Ling 17:03

Which was in 2010, something like that. Yeah. Yeah. No, it's really important to bring our listeners on this journey, because I think that we are so used to it now, so accustomed, you know, whether you're working with the $17,000, you know, dedicated medical devices, or you grab an iPad, and you download an app, and we're using AAC apps now, it was not always like that.


Kate 17:28

It's really important for people to understand, and everything changed. with, you know, Proloquo ( was really the first app to come out. And everything, everything changed. It became, you know, the gatekeepers, were no longer gatekeepers, and people could just go buy an iPad and an app and set up their child to communicate without going through insurance companies and Medicaid and Medicare and each therapist in AAC clinics, and suddenly, you know, this very old model of you have to prove it with low tech first was out the window because it wasn't it was no longer cheaper to prove it with low tech first. You know, and to me, that changed. That changed everything I had a little boy I'm working with right now he's four and has Angelman syndrome, he just turned four. And he was sort of not my first young child to put on a full-fledged device. But he was the first child I put on AAC without any... And he didn't have any access to the system. So, we gave him mid tech, and we gave him low tech. But then we also set him up with the high-tech robust communication system that he couldn't physically access. And I've done a lot of work with Angelman syndrome, so I knew about when he would develop a point and be able to access and it was, the process was a lot about getting the parent to understand that we're going to do this even though you know, he's two, he's three, he's probably not gonna have a point for a while. We're gonna model and we're gonna use this system. And maybe a month ago, he developed the point. And it worked. I mean, all this language input we have done for over a year, where he can point to symbols now and


Mai Ling 19:19

Can you clarify that Kate? Using a point, it sounds so simple, but for someone who's listening,


Kate 19:25

Kids with Angelman have, like all kids with neurological and neurodevelopmental disabilities, they develop their motor skills at different times. And in Angelman syndrome, the ability to point your index finger doesn't come until maybe right around four years old, but sometimes later, sometimes five years old, sometimes a little bit earlier. But it's a you know, it's a tough skill to learn how to do to isolate your index finger and hold it out and keep your other fingers folded in and, and then press on something or point to something is this Physically a hard thing to do when you have neurological motor issues. So, developing a point means he finally had the ability to hold one finger out and keep it out and then use it to point or to touch but...


Mai Ling 20:14

And that's so important. exactly what I was gonna say is that that's how you're going to access this technology, or using holding like the pencil, which has the ball at the end. What do you think of that?


Kate 20:24

Yeah, he could have done a stylus or something. But given the course of Angelman syndrome, he was going to end up using his finger, that was where he would end up. So, we just started with the end in mind. And of course, there's all sorts of alternative access we could have used to give him access in the meantime. But instead, we chose to stick with showing him the system that he couldn't use yet, plus all these low-tech alternatives for expressive communication in the meantime. And so, once he was able to point his finger it was it was magic, you know, he suddenly was able to ask for what he wanted and make comments and do all this stuff.


Mai Ling 21:06

So, you mentioned Angelman syndrome, and this is an area that you have specific expertise in correct.


Kate 21:11

Yes, Angelman and Rett Syndrome, I have some very specific expertise.


Mai Ling 21:16

And how did you I mean, there's so many kids. How do you select which ones you're working with? How do you get to work with them on your caseload like how did that happen for you?


Kate 21:27

So, it's so God...I’m not I’m not really sure. I think, for Rett Syndrome, what happened was back when I was still a classroom teacher, and I was a classroom teacher until about 2013 2014. I had a young lady with Rett in my classroom, shout out to Kelly Schooner, she's now in her mid-20s. She actually she still comes to my online group, so I still see her every day. But she tried. She, she got a Toby, and which is an eye gaze based, I gaze tracking communication system. And her parents invited me to give a talk to the Massachusetts Rett Syndrome group. And somebody asked if we could livestream it, which wasn't as easy then as it is now.


Mai Ling 22:19

When was that? What year ish?


Kate 22:21

2013 2014. Yep. And so, we, we figured out how to livestream it. And then somebody used their phone and recorded the live streaming off their computer with their phone and posted that to YouTube.


Mai Ling 22:37



Kate 22:38

And it got a lot of attention in Rett Syndrome. And from then on, I was very engaged in working with people with Rett Syndrome and started to do a lot of work in Rett Syndrome. And, you know, started seeing a lot of local clients and then being invited to see kids across the country and to speak at conferences in the USA and Canada, and to do online conferences.


Mai Ling 23:03

Now was that your goal when you first started, so you're like, Hey, you know what I'm doing?


Kate 23:07



Mai Ling 23:07

Oh, right. That's what I want to pull out. Because I think a lot of people Kate, you know, they're just, I'm doing this, I want to, I want to do this on a larger scale. I want to help more people, you know, and how does that actually manifest and it's so amazing to get to be able to speak with you, you know, and you can share your journey with us.


Kate 23:25

Yeah, but I don't know how to stage that advice, because my journey was sort of an accident.


Mai Ling 23:30

But that's okay. That's usually how things happen.


Kate 23:32

You know, and I think, in Angelman syndrome was similar. I had a client with Angelman syndrome at the time he was three he's 10 now, and his mother invited me to see Mary Louise Bertram, from Australia speak and similar to my read experience was Mary Louise's Angelman experience. She had a classroom with four kids with Angelman syndrome in it. And so, she sort of became an expert, and they brought her to Massachusetts to speak. So, you know, a parent says, I'm going to pay for you to get some professional development. So, I went,


Mai Ling 24:09

But no, not everybody does. I just don't know you, right. But take advantage of that opportunity and say, you know, yes, I'm going to move my schedule. I'm going to do everything I can to get to this, you know, this amazing speaker.


Kate 24:22

So I went and then the parents invited me to go out to dinner with Mary-Louise, a bunch of families after and it turned out that Mary-Louise had been reading my special education blog, which was called teaching learners with multiple needs, which is sort of defunct now, but was a very, very big and well known blog for a long time, in the early 2000s. And she knew who I was. So, she told all the parents, you know, your kids should be seeing Kate, so I picked more Angelman clients. And then that said, The same thing happened with Rett, that it was, you know, from a few clients to doing some speaking to national conferences and, and now I, you know, I help kids with Angelman and all over the world. But I think, you know, a lot of it was embracing opportunities when they came up. And I think a lot of it was trying to be unafraid to put myself out there and to be know it all, I think I've taken a lot of flak for being a know it all, and for being, too into teaching and too passionate about teaching, and other teachers don't like it, if you make them look bad by doing a lot more than they do. And, you know...


Mai Ling 25:44

Criticism, right, like just being open to that ...


Kate 25:47

A lot of, you know, holding people to high expectations, and then being people being upset about that, and, you know, quote, unquote, getting in trouble for that a lot of having high standards and how I would communicate everything that happens in my classroom to parents, but you're not really supposed to do that, either. I don't play the game. Well, I think is what it comes down to. But also, I don't let that stop me. You know, when I was working as a teacher, people didn't always love the way about went about things, but people always asked me to do this, will you do that? Or are you gonna you know, you should train other people to be like you and me. You know, I just want to play with kids. Know, like, I hear you that there. It would be beneficial if more people had my skill set. Or, you know, it might be nice if I was able to do this and teach all these courses. But if I don't get my daily, allotted time to just play with kids and help them to communicate and be a teacher for kids then I am unhappy.


Mai Ling 26:55

Hey there, hope you're enjoying the show. I just wanted to take a moment and introduce you to another great podcast that you might like in the Xceptional Podcast Network.


Podcast Advertisement 27:04

Please listen carefully. Hi, I'm Matt Hott, one of those of speech science, a weekly podcast bringing you all the information that you can handle related to speech sciences and disabilities. Michelle Wintering, Michael McLeod and I interview leaders and difference makers in the field. Every Tuesday, we drop a new episode, you can find us on iTunes, Android, and on our website, Join us as we try to find the answers to the question "What is communication?"


Mai Ling 27:34

Now let's get back to our amazing interview. Now, you shared with me that you are a Myers Briggs INFJ, which is an advocate. And when you told me that I was like, of course you are. And it's funny because we are one letter away. I'm the ENFJ. And for anyone listening you definitely should look into its actually online. And it's a personality. It's a very quick one. And it's Myers Briggs 16 personalities highly recommended. It tells you so much about yourself, your purpose, your vision, how you communicate with others and the world. And Kate is the quintessential advocate. I mean, it is you can hear her I mean, in everything she does, I wanted to ask you so in finding your voice... One thing about INFJ So the most accurate thing I've ever read about myself both positive and negative, was something I read about an INFJ It was INFJs are usually right. And they usually know it, which is like the best part of me, which is I make sure I know what I'm talking about, or I don't say anything and the worst part, which is that I know I'm right. And so, it can be difficult to be in a conversation with me. But you're highly educated, you're well read, you know, you make sure that you are taking in all the information of the world. So, it's not like you're just in a silo and making decisions. You know, what I want to ask you is like, how did you find your voice? You know, we went back to the blog, he kind of glazed over this amazing, popular successful blog. But to write a blog, right, you need to find your voice, you need to find your courage. I mean, passion and interest is one piece. You know, again, this is for people who are listening, whatever your blog is going to be, I really want to take you on this journey because Kate didn't you know, at 15 say, you know what, in about 10 years, I'm going to write a blog and I'm just going to start becoming the leader in this space. And blogs were new then too, how did that journey go for you.


Kate 29:27

So, you know a deep dark secret about me is almost everything positive I've ever done happened because I was mad so


Mai Ling 29:37

Like the hug. Something piss me off. And so, I decided my response would be to help other people in a different way. And that's pretty much what always happens. And you know, the Facebook group with 11,000 members, that's how that started, the blog, that's how that started. A lot of what I do, that's a whole workshop series. I did here mistakes happened because of that. So the blog was I was at a time in my life where I was working in a, what we call a collaborative school here, which is called an IU or a consortium or a bossy, it has different names in different places. But it's, you know, when a bunch of school systems pull their funds to educate the kids with the highest need. So, I was working at that sort of setting. And I had fractured my ankle at work, and had to have surgery, I was gonna be out for eight weeks. And as that was happening, a whole bunch of teachers made it clear that they did not like me, because I was a know it all. And all that stuff I was just talking about a few minutes ago. So I figured that if I was going to be home for eight weeks with this broken leg, and everybody was mad at me for being a know it all, then, maybe what needed to happen is I needed a place to be, a know it all.  Wow


Kate 31:03

So that I wasn't annoying people at work. So, I started the blog is a place to be a know it all.


Mai Ling 31:09



Kate 31:10

That was my only goal really was a place to share my knowledge about teaching kids with significant disabilities. And hopefully not annoying anybody.


Mai Ling 31:20

So, were you a writer before this? Oh, I mean, I've always been good at writing I don’t know if I consider myself to be a writer. But it's something that comes sort of easily to me. So that's what I did, I started the blog. And at first, it was just resources, it wasn't much of my own personality. And then as it became more well known, in fact, at first, you couldn't even tell who wrote it. It was pretty anonymous. I was about to say, back in the day, most people did not put their name.


Kate 31:47

Yeah. And then eventually I did add my name to it. But then my blog became a continual source of problems that, you know, I changed jobs. And the new job, when they hired me said that they were fine with the blog, they thought it was great. But then once I was there for six months, they had a problem with it. Which led in part, to me leaving teaching, was this idea that every aspect of my life would be controlled by my teaching job, and I just wasn't interested in that. So yeah, so that's the blog.


Mai Ling 32:20

Well, you know, I've had a number of speech language pathologists who have started their blogs, and then it's moved into products, you know, in selling that there's always been this worry. And sometimes it's substantiated that their outside life, their blog, their business, you know, in quotes, is, in some way going to be affected, or affects their paying job, you know, the I'm an employee at this place, and they control the content that I create.


Kate 32:45

Yeah. Well, when I changed jobs, I got it in writing that that wasn't the case. But again, people started to I don't know what it is that upsets businesses about that, but it or schools about that, but it did. I don't know the blog, I mean, the blog for all the good it did in the world would cause a lot of personal angst. You know, a lot of variables for me, you know, people misinterpreting sayings or people, I don't know, jealousy, I don't know what the problem was. And then everybody was always pushing you to monetize it. And that's not what it was for. You know, and then it just would be a lot of time, like telling people asking you to monetize it to leave me alone. Like, I don't want to do product reviews, and get your product for free...


Mai Ling 33:36

Sponsorship. Yeah,


Kate 33:38

You know, I don't want to you know, and a lot of companies came knocking at my door. And, you know, and there were times when I accepted, and I took products, but it was always specifically in writing that I wouldn't necessarily blog about them. And I will take the products from my classroom and use in my classroom, but no promise I would write a review. And if I did no promise if it would be good or bad, but I don't know. I think I'm glad I'm away from that. But that felt to me, very murky in terms of ethics. So I stayed away from it.


Mai Ling 34:12

Very interesting, because again, I think that a lot of people that are listening, you know, you think about creating content, and how do you get the value back for the time that you put in and so sponsorship, selling products, or being an affiliate for certain companies, that's been the hand in hand relationship, you know, that has grown. And so, your story is even more interesting, because from there, you move to a Facebook group, which again, is now it's a new way of bringing together people in a community and thought leadership and guiding people. And the reason why I really, really am so excited about having you today is because you have now done something in the middle of the 2020 pandemic that we have talked about for years, and that is how do we get our students, our children, our AAC users communicating with each other which is amazing, distance learning which it I think it's always been like, there's no way we're gonna be able to do that. I mean, there's just a number of these myths out there or fallacies or things that we just never tried. And so now I want to get to the meat of this. And tell me what you have been able to do this. Yeah, that was all like, interesting.


Kate 35:19

Actually, this is way more fun for me to talk about than, like, my very emotional past with my blog and past jobs. Um,


Mai Ling 35:26

And thank you, we appreciate that. You know, I just want you know Kate.


Kate 35:29

I do not talk about that stuff often. And now it's on the podcast. Alright, so yeah, so COVID started happening, and I wasn't necessarily paying attention as much as I should have been to COVID. And I think, you know, maybe a lot of people were caught off guard that suddenly we were talking about closing schools. And I do a consulting position at a school district that's affiliated with the university. And so, the first heads up to me was the student teachers and the practicum students from the University, were saying the university was closing for COVID. And then 24 hours later, Massachusetts was closing schools. And New Hampshire was still open, and I consult in the school in New Hampshire. So, I went to that consultation. And it ended up being the last day that that school was open too. And I said to the parent, maybe if this happens, I'll run some groups online. And I've run groups in person for years. So once a month, we get together, and it's, you know, 5 to 10 kids who use AAC and we do stories and games and activities for about an hour and a half. And those are our local groups. So that was my original idea was schools of schools are probably going to close. My students are going to let be the last one that they have a plan for


Mai Ling 36:57

All of your students who are AAC users.


Kate 36:59

Well, not all but the vast majority of my students are AAC users. And, you know, if they're moving to virtual schools, figuring out how to work with the kids with complex communication needs was probably going to happen last. So, I thought, Oh, you know what, I'll run a group online. And then a couple groups online. So, over the weekend, I put together some ideas and some lesson plans and researched which platform to use and said, all right, on Monday, I'm going to start classes. And you know, I'm going to keep it cheap. $5 a class and let's try this. And by the end of the week, I had 20 something, students participating and requests for more.  Wow. And this is the first time you the first time I've ever done anything online like that but charged for it. This is I'm saying like you brought them together. And this is the first time you're actually charging for I always charged for groups in person. Right? But this is I'm talking maybe the first time you've done online courses. And I say charge like there's it's an it's a service, right, but $5 is nominal. Yeah, $5 a class. And my plan was really that I really didn't want it to be only kids who can afford it. You know, I didn't want it to just be parents who can shell out $100 a week for one class, I wanted to be able to serve the kids in my practice, who would not be able to afford a price like that. So, I set the price at about $5 a class and the more classes you take, the cheaper it is. So, by the end of the second week, we were up to six classes a day, by the beginning of the third week, seven classes a day. By the third week, we had 40 people registered. We're still averaging 40 to 50. People, I think I just had 59 people register for next week. So, it got very big, very fast. And because I'm well known online, I never advertised, I posted on my personal Facebook feed and on my business Facebook feed that I was doing this. And that was it. I that was all I needed to do. About week six or seven, the numbers were low. And so, I posted it again. But what I didn't realize is parents hadn't had forgotten to sign up. So, I ended up accidentally growing a little bit too fast. So, you know, had to adjust for that. And even now I'm offering a new course starting tomorrow because we're starting summer session tomorrow. So, we did 15 weeks of school year. And then we're gonna do eight weeks of summer session and then see where we're at. But I offered a new course and I didn't check in on the registration frequently enough and it got a little too big. So, it's at 23, which is massive for an AAC class. So, I might have to split it in offer twice in a day, but we'll see what happens.


Mai Ling 39:47

You used the word we.


Kate 39:49

By we I mean me and all the parents.


Mai Ling 39:52



Kate 39:52

And it's really become a community and the parents have been amazing. I have one family that I'm bartering services with. And she started to do all my administrative work.


Mai Ling 40:04

Hmm, great


Kate 40:05

Which has made it so much easier for me. I'm not great with Excel and stuff, and you're given a choice between making something into Excel or just flying by the seat of my pants, I'll fly by the seat of my pants,


Mai Ling 40:17

and deal with the mess later, right? Yeah, I hate that.


Kate 40:20

I mean, there never seems to be a mess. But, you know, all the organization's in my head, which was, you can't explain to anybody what's going on, because it's all you know, it's all stored in my head. But, um, so somebody is helping me with that now, and, and, you know, I couldn't run the groups without the parents, it's the way that it works is every child who's participating is expected to have somebody nearby and nearby varies based on the skills of the child right, so a child who is a very, very early communicator is very young, has trouble sitting still, they're going to need someone sitting with them and assisting them through the whole class and doing a the language input. So talking on their talker to them, well, I'm teaching, whereas a child who's older and has more skills and is, you know, capable of muting their own microphone and doing that sort of stuff on zoom, they just need someone close enough by that they, they can call for help if they need it. But it wouldn't happen without the parents doing it too. So, by we, I mean, the community we've created,


Mai Ling 41:28

It's beautiful. Thank you so much, Kate. So for our listener, again, what the reason why Kate and I came on today was to share a number of, of stories in here, which is, you know, you don't just grow up and all of a sudden, you're a consultant in a in a certain niche, you know, there's definitely a journey. Kate's is really, really amazing, and interesting. And also, you know, looking at a time in history, because we're living through the pandemic, now and in 2020, is that if for some people, this is a very devastating time, financially, and employment wise, and all of that, and Kate, and these parents have found a way to use the technology to use the internet to find opportunity, and find ways for these students. And like she said, with and without the need for AAC, but they have together pioneered online school for children with special needs disability,


Kate 42:17

Everybody, everybody in the groups has uses AAC, my client base outside of this does include kids who don't use AAC, but the group is all AAC.


Mai Ling 42:27

So, it's very, very specific thing.


Kate 42:28

Yes, exactly. I think the other thing that has happened out of this that amazes me, but also doesn't is that I thought this is something we do to give kids structure and give me structure, and to sort of keep people busy. And it did at first it still does. But it ended up being the kids are making real progress. And you know, I have a few kids in the group, least two, who are were not doing well in traditional school, one who had been removed from traditional school and haven't been in the classroom in three years because he was unmanageable, supposedly, who is just flourishing in groups. So, a lot of kids who weren't getting their educational needs met are suddenly able to get the met online. And, you know, in a very different kind of setting that would be considered difficult for any kid to sit through group. We've had the preschool class in particular, the little, little guys, the three and four-year olds. We had three of them graduate from a preschool class to shared reading and shared writing because they gained all the skills we were working on.


Mai Ling 43:41



Kate 43:43

They were getting bored. So, they don't attend preschool anymore. They attend shared reading and shared writing. You know, we talked about developing a point the little boy who developed a point that came through the virtual preschool class because we spent a good 10 minutes working on developing a point we had a whole bunch of kids in the preschool class there had a nod their heads for Yes. And shake their heads for No. And then I love this story. So, every day we do this. Yes and no song where we practice a very slow, I bring my head up for Yes, I bring my head down for No. And then we sing the Uh-Huh song from super simple songs. And we sing it faster and faster until I sing it so fast. My glasses fly off and that is of course hilarious. So as the kids were getting a little bored with the same old routine, and they were mastering the skills, I added in I don't know to the mix my so we will practice this yes and this no and then we will practice shrugging our shoulders. So, I got a text last week from a parent that you know her, her daughter had started back to regular therapy sessions and the therapist asked her a question. And there's a long pause and then her daughter shrugged her shoulders. Wow. And the therapist was like, Did she just shrug your shoulders at me to say I don't Know? And her mom was like, yep, you heard it, right. That's what she said. And that kind of stuff. I just, that's so cool that she has this new skill to say, I don't know. And, you know, and then in other groups, I know we've had kids who have done all inclusion their whole life, which is what I am pro inclusion. But it's their first time being in an environment with all kids who use devices. And they love it, they just being in these groups. Now we have kids who have never sat through anybody reading a whole book, who participate in shared reading now and listen to a whole book. We took the last week off of zoom, just to have a little break, after 15 weeks of zoom. And I ended up having to make some recordings of me reading books, because the kids were saying Zoom ok, Zoom ok in the cape, Cape zone with cape and I made a bunch of recordings that I posted where they could just watch me read the story. Since they were, we're looking to have a zoom. We've had friendships developed between the kids where they're facetiming each other, and texting each other on, you know, AAC user to AAC user, which was cool. And then a bunch of cool stuff. We're starting for the summer. I've hired Krista Howard, Krista Howard is an AAC user, who is working for Gompers and, you know, asked if she could be involved in some way. And we talked a little and then it fell aside. And then we talked again, and she came and observed. And she's going to help me with young adult group. And, um, you know, so I'm going to slowly hand over the reins of young adult group. So, it can be run by AAC users, for AAC users.


Mai Ling 46:42

And if that's the word, I'm thinking, role models, you know, we all have these stories of they don't look like me, you know? And now they do. Okay, thank you so much. This has been amazing. And I'm sure that parents and listeners are going to want to stay in touch with you. And so how can we connect?


Kate 46:58

So, on Twitter, it's @AACVoices. On Instagram, it's @AACVoices. On Facebook, you can look for AAC Voices, LLC, my business, or you can join AAC Through Motivate Model Move All The Way, which is that that big group that we talked about? I think that that's pretty much all the different ways.


Mai Ling 47:21

Excellent. Thank you so much for everything that you're doing, Kate, and we're so excited. Thank you for being a pioneer in this new online learning.


Kate 47:28

I still don’t know if I consider myself a pioneer. But thank you.


Mai Ling 47:32

And that's what's great. You're so humble. It's wonderful. Well, thank you have a wonderful day. It's been great learning about you.


Kate 47:38

Thanks. Bye, bye.


Mai Ling 47:41

Thanks so much for joining us for this episode. And remember that if you have a creative idea that you're ready to start on and want help from someone who truly understands what it means to build a disability focused offering, visit and let's get started.


Martyn 47:54

Be sure to check out to embrace your place as a world changer. If you are serious about becoming an influencer and impacting the world, please join me in my VIP Academy where we focus on you and build momentum together. Will see you in the next episode. You're listening to the exceptional Podcast Network.

Kate Ahern

Kate Ahern is an educational specialist in complex communication needs in private practice. She is certified as an intensive special needs teacher, for ages birth through adult in Massachusetts. Kate has vast experience in the field of assistive technology with children and young adults.

Kate has spent twenty years plus working with children and young adults who have complex communication needs. She is also the author of a popular special education blog and moderates several social media groups about augmentative and alternative communication. Kate is often asked to guest speak or provide training about many issues in the field of complex communication needs. Kate holds a Master of Science in Special Education from Simmons College. She has also been a Proloquo2Go Trainer and has completed the advanced Pragmatic Organization of Dynamic Display (PODD) course. She is the recipient of the Federation for Children with Special Needs Inclusive Teacher Award and a Fighting Angels from the Fighting Angels Foundation.