FrankenSystem is the name for an AAC system which has been highly edited or customized by a stakeholder (caregiver, teacher, ABA practitioner, therapist, etc) without regard for a set of internal rules, visual cues and standards that exist underlying robust AAC systems.
Such systems tend to lack consistency between buttons, pages and sections. The visual cues (color coding, fonts, font styles, button shapes) built into most robust systems are ignored. There is usually a mix of various symbol sets, clip art and photos without a logical basis for when/what purpose they are used. There may be an over reliance on photos based in the debunked idea of a “representational hierarchy” in AAC. These photos can lead to over or under generalization and use of the system as a photo album instead of communication system. Images used may be blurry, difficult to distinguish from the background or lack clear meaning.
A FrankenSystem will use the same symbol on different buttons, on different pages, to speak different messages so that the user doesn’t understand what will happen when they activate the button. It may use navigational icons, such as next page, go back or home, on communication buttons and not just navigation buttons.
FrankenSystems may have a mix of colors, buttons sizes and images which are unpleasant to look at, at best. They are often aesthetically displeasing, and, not to put to fine a point on it, ugly.
Please note that AAC users, especially adult AAC users, who customize their own system may do so anyway they wish. FrankenSystems are imposed on AAC users, not created by AAC users for themselves
Many people may not understand the work that went into creating the leading AAC systems (like PODD, WordPower, Unity, LAMP WfL, Proloquo, Proloquo2Go, Avaz, etc). Linguists, SLPs, educators, AAC users and stakeholders and many others spend years creating these systems. They typically have very specific and meaningful reasons for why things work they way they work. Most systems use the latest research in their designs to ensure the systems are based in what works best.
As people who unwittingly create these FrankenSystems often have no exposure to the design and rationales lying behind the vocabulary set up they don’t realize what they are doing when they over customize the program. AAC System creators/designers and sellers MUST do a better job informing their customers how and why their systems are designed the way they are.
Beyond that, these individuals who do this over customization are just working too hard! They would like be better off if they did basic customization of people, places, preferred items/things, personal information, and relevant slang and then watched a movie, had a glass of wine or otherwise rested so they can use their energy on the things that help AAC users become more competent - like aided language input (modeling) and literacy instruction.
A FrankenSystem is often:
created by very well meaning but inexperienced person(s)
created by someone who desperately wants to DO something to help, but who does not fully understand what they are doing
created by a person who does not understand the system they are adapting
created by a person who thinks the vocabulary system included is “too” something (too hard, too many words, too hard to see)
attempts to replace core and content words with phrases and full sentences without regard for when and why it is appropriate to do this
attempts to turn a robust communication system into a stimulus response machine or into a means of requesting only, with an over abundance of nouns (“noun town”)
may be created over years by multiple people who do not communicate with each other (too many cooks in the kitchen)
We should avoid creating and implementing a FrankenSystem because:
it disrupts a consistent system that will become more useful and important as the AAC users skills grow
it is often designed to make the AAC user appear very fluent before they have mastered the skills and at the same time they limit the ability to gain those skills
the AAC user will have difficulty knowing what a button will do when it is activated
the motor plan and ability to rely on motor memory is often disrupted
the color coding and other cues to navigate the system are often inconsistent making it hard to use
once the system it is based on becomes out of date or the device/app is taken off the market the user will be without the system they know - many adults who use AAC end up in this position!
it is unpleasant to look at, especially for the long term
How to avoid creating and implementing a FrankenSystem:
always search for words before you add them, make sure you aren’t adding content that is already there
before you make serious changes or program more than a word or two have conversations with knowledge people and other stakeholders including the user
keep a shared document or notebook with all stakeholders that has an explanation of the system and its internal rules, design, visual cues and features, so that any changes being made can match the system
What to do if a user has a FrankenSytem:
determine if the system meets their needs and if stakeholders are satisfied with the system. If it is used well and everyone is satisfied you may not need to make any changes or may seek to move the FrankenSystem closer to following the standards of the robust system it is based on (if it is based on one), by editing the system
consider offering and modeling the original robust vocabulary while still having the FrankenSystem available . This can be accomplished in many systems but having a button in each vocabulary to switch user or profile so the different vocabularies and easily be toggled back and forth (much like we do for bilingual AAC users). Over time the user will likely move more and more towards the robust system, but return to the customized system when needed.
train the AAC user and stakeholders on the design, internal rules, visual cues and rationale of the original robust app to aide in their understanding of why it would be a better choice, use visual helpers and quick start guides as support for them