What Is Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) and Who Can Benefit From It?

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Speech Therapist

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5 minutes

Have you heard of the term aided language input? Or augmentative and alternative communication (AAC)? Sounds complicated, right?

It doesn’t have to be! We are here to help you gain a better understanding of this area of communication and what it might mean for your child.

Let’s move through the basics of AAC together! ☺️

Augmentative and Alternative Communication

What Is Augmentative + Alternative Communication (AAC)?

Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) includes all forms of communication (other than oral speech) that are used to express thoughts, needs, wants, and ideas. We all use AAC when we make facial expressions or use gestures, use symbols or pictures, or write. 

AAC includes unaided and aided communication.  

  • Unaided Communication: includes methods of communication that rely on a person’s body to communicate including facial expressions, gestures, body movements, vocalizations, verbalizations, sign language and eye gaze.  
  • Aided Communication: requires tools or equipment that are not part of a users body, such as paper based communication systems,  and written communication as well as high tech speech generating devices with voice output.

What Is Aided Language Input?

Aided language input is a communication strategy that requires a communication partner, that uses an AAC system, to speak to the AAC user.

If you think about how long you speak to your children, providing ongoing input, before they speak back; it’s quite a while. Using an aided language input or AAC is no different. If your child is using AAC to speak then we must learn and use ACC to communicate with them.

Children who need aided language input and AAC to communication will have the opportunity to learn symbols, words, the meaning of these symbols and words, the association between symbols and the words they represent. They are also given the opportunity to use aided language to express a variety of communicative functions, how to combine symbols to create increasingly complex messages, how to use grammar, and how to use language for social interactions.

The list can go on for how beneficial it is to use an aided language input and AAC.

Who Can Benefit From AAC?

Children or adults who can not effectively use speech to say what they want, when they want, and how they want, benefit from other means of communication.

Individuals may be nonverbal, and use AAC as an alternative to speech. Or they may have speech but are unintelligible, and use AAC to augment their communication.

This can include, but is not limited to:

  • Children with neurological and genetic disorders including but not limited to Rett Syndrome, FoxG1, Angelman Syndrome, Pura Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, Cornelia de Lange Syndrome, Cri du Chat and other rare genetic diagnoses
  • Children who have global developmental delays
  • Children with multiple disabilities who do not have a formal diagnosis
  • Young children who are not effectively communicating due to significantly reduced expressive communication skills
  • Children with Autism
  • Children who have significantly reduced intelligibility due to motor speech and severe phonological disorders and could benefit from AAC to augment speech
  • Children who use a variety of access methods, including direct selection (directly touching the screen with a finger), eye gaze and switches

Characteristics Of A Good AAC System

There are many AAC systems out there, however, not all are equal. When looking for a good AAC system keep the following tips in mind:

  • Robust vocabulary made up of: verbs, descriptors, pronouns, prepositions, question words and nouns
  • Goes beyond choice making to allow people to communicate for a range of communicative functions including but not limited to: protesting, refusal, self-advocating, commenting, asking questions, requesting assistance, requesting actions and objects, sharing information, telling jokes, interacting with peers
  • Considers the needs now and also needs in the future
  • Has enough language to allow communication partners to model language beyond what a person is expressing
  • Accessible via an access method that allows a person to communicate using a robust vocabulary system (i.e scanning, head pointer, or eye gaze). 

You May Be Wondering If There Are Prerequisites To AAC

Aided Language Input

As a parent, it’s important to understand that there are no prerequisties to using AAC. Many families learn of myths and misconceptions because of the lack of education on AAC. Below are some of the common myths that we hear and how we want to debunk them.

A child’s cognition is too low. This one makes us cringe!  There is no way to measure a child’s cognition if they do not have a reliable and robust means of communication.  And how are they going to develop a reliable and robust means of communication, if no one is providing them with and teaching them the means to develop that. 

Research shows that expectations influence a child’s growth, so we need to presume potential!  Read Expectation Changes Intelligence by Karen Pape, MD. It’s an amazing short article explaining a child’s potential!!

My child needs to understand symbols in order to for us to introduce AAC.  Children learn what we teach them and begin learning symbols at birth.  Words are symbols.  Children wouldn’t learn words if we did not use words to speak to them.

The same goes for abstract visual symbols.  Children are not born knowing these things.  We teach them by talking to them.  AAC is no different.  If a child loves play doh, and every time an adult touches play doh as the play doh is presented, or if every time s/he touches play doh on the board or device, she will learn that the symbol represents play doh.

AAC will prevent my child from speaking, and/or s/he may become reliant on the AAC Research shows that the use of AAC only enhances speech development, if speech is going to develop.  There has been no research showing that the use of AAC hinders speech development.

We have to wait until a child is a certain age to introduce AAC, a child is too young for AAC, and/or we need to wait to see how speech develops before we introduce AAC. There is no such thing as too young to begin AAC.  Children begin saying their first words at a very young age.  The wait and see approach limits a child’s language and overall communication. 

Speech and Language are two different things.  Speech is the sounds we produce and the way we combine those sounds to produce words and sentences.  Language includes the type of vocabulary we use, grammar and word order and the “why” of communication.  The use of AAC allows children to develop their language and overall communication skills even when speech is delayed or not present at all.

We understand this is a new and sometimes misunderstood form of communication for most. Our speech therapists are here for you and on this journey with you. We support you and want to empower you on this journey of speech and language for your child.

If you are still unsure if AAC is right for your child and family please schedule a free speech therapy consultation today. We encourage you to take that first step!

Schedule a free speech therapy consultation today!