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The Role of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) in Children’s Communication 


Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) refers to all the different ways that someone can communicate besides talking. There is a multitude of methods and devices that are considered AAC that temporarily or permanently, allow those who struggle with speech and language to connect with the world around them. These alternatives to verbal communication, ranging from low-tech communication books to high-tech computer devices supplement and compensate for impairments and disabilities that individuals face when they have moderate to severe expressive communication struggles. 


Non-verbal girl, learning to use digital tablet device to communicate. People who have difficulty developing language or using speech use speech-generating devices.

Which Children Benefit from Augmentative and Alternative Communication? 

AAC methods and devices are not limited to any one condition, diagnosis, or disability, making them a vital tool to aid communication for everyone, including those who wish to interact with individuals struggling with speech. These devices significantly enhance the lives of users, granting them access to a world otherwise restricted due to their communication challenges. AAC devices also improve the lives of those around users, providing a means to hear and understand their friends, loved ones, or peers. 


It is important to understand that individuals may struggle with verbal communication for several reasons. While AAC devices are not exclusive to any specific diagnosis or condition, there are primary diagnoses where these devices aid treatment and navigation. Some of the most common include cognitive impairments, autism spectrum disorder, apraxia, dyspraxia, and developmental delays. Any child experiencing unreliable speech and communication is a candidate and direct beneficiary of AAC devices. Not only do AAC devices compensate for speech challenges, but they also uniquely help individuals build communication skills traditionally learned through verbal communication. 

 

Just as there are numerous reasons people use AAC, there is a wide variety of AAC devices to suit individual needs. It is important to get an individualized evaluation from a professional, as some may use a combination of high-tech and low-tech AAC across different settings. Providers can advise on matching an AAC system to the individual's needs, environments, and communication expectations. 

 

In this article, we will explore the different types of AAC devices available, including low-tech and high-tech options. We will highlight their unique qualities, accessibility factors, and key uses. 


Low-Tech Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) 

Low-tech Augmentative and Alternative Communication refers to communication methods that do not involve electronics or advanced technology. These options are typically affordable and easy to create at home without professional assistance. Low-tech AAC uses a predetermined vocabulary of essential feelings, needs, and actions to create interactive materials, but it does not include audio feedback or voice output. 

 

This method of AAC includes expressive language (such as gestures or nods) and material-based options like physical communication books or visual schedules. These options are tailored to an individual's specific needs, wants, routines, and interests. 

 

Low-tech AAC is unique in that it relies on a communication partner who prompts the individual and pays attention as they indicate their wants and needs. The most common methods within these descriptions require the individual to physically point out what they want to communicate using these aids. 

 

For example, if asked "What would you like to eat?" the individual could go through picture options and point to an image of soup—or a dish specific to their culture or personal favorites, if those representations are included based on the individual's life experiences. These pictures have strong mental correlations, making communication more intuitive. 

 

Who Can Benefit from Low-Tech AAC? 

Low-tech AAC can benefit anyone unable to communicate effectively through speech, including those who are hard of hearing. It is commonly seen supporting individuals with autism, down syndrome, intellectual disabilities, and developmental disabilities. Identifying developmental milestones can help determine if low-tech AAC may be appropriate. 

 

Examples of Low-Tech AAC  

 

Printed Word Boards 

  • These boards facilitate communication of general requests and descriptions. 

  • Printed word boards containing general requests such as "stop," "look," "this," "that," "fast," and "slow." 

 

Communication Books 

  • Communication books include pictures, symbols, or words for expressing thoughts, needs, and preferences, such as what they want to eat or how they feel. 

  • They may be physical or digital collections. 

Visual Schedules 

  • Visual schedules display daily routines. 

  • They help individuals anticipate what is happening next through visual cues and structured routines. 


Implementing Low-Tech AAC 

The internet offers free templates and existing imagery, enabling accessible creations of low-tech augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) aids. When integrating these communicative systems, it is crucial to practice and demonstrate the connection between the picture/symbol and its representation to the individual. This process is tailored to the individual's comprehension level and environment. Having an engaged communication partner who can prompt the individual and pay close attention to how they indicate their AAC responses is essential, highlighting the importance of interactive exchange in this method of communication. 

 

Therapist teaching young mother of a non-verbal child how to use speech-generating device. Augmentative and Alternative Communication AAC device.

High-Tech Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) 

High-tech AAC refers to communication methods that rely on electronic devices powered by batteries. These systems often incorporate advanced software and sophisticated features. High-tech AAC devices are categorized by their visual displays and synthesized voices, allowing individuals to produce audible speech output through the device, acting as an electronic voice extension. 

 

One of the advantages of high-tech AAC systems is the ability to choose from a variety of unique computerized voices, providing more individuality for the user. While typically more expensive to purchase and maintain than low-tech options, high-tech AAC devices offer greater independence by being less reliant on a communication partner. 

 

Who Can Benefit from High-Tech AAC? 

High-tech AAC tends to be more complex but can benefit anyone who requires a communication solution beyond what low-tech options can provide. 

 

Examples of High-Tech AAC  

 

Computers or iPads 

  • Computers or iPads with AAC specific apps and software installed. 

Dedicated AAC Devices 

  • Devices where the AAC program is the primary function.  

  • Many of these devices feature core word layouts, descriptors, frequently used words, and representations of needs like low-tech options. 

High-tech AAC devices can be controlled via direct touch, gaze interaction, or switch scanning, accommodating individuals unable to physically contact the device directly. 

 

Implementing High-Tech AAC 

An evaluation by a professional can help determine whether high-tech is most appropriate for an individual's needs. Some individuals may benefit from a combined approach across different environments. Factors such as cost, portability, and situational needs (e.g., home, school, community) should be considered when selecting the appropriate high-tech AAC solution. A professional may aid in navigating software and devices, teaching both the individual and the caregiver.  

 

Conclusion 

The world of AAC provides invaluable tools that bridge the communication gap for those who are non-speaking or have limited speech abilities. All forms of communication - whether high-tech speech devices, low-tech picture boards, or simply gesturing and expression - are valid paths for connecting and expressing oneself.  

 

AAC opens opportunities for individuals to have their voices heard, share their thoughts and feelings, and engage more fully with the world around them. The expanding options in AAC empower users to find personalized systems that map to their specific needs and situations. 

 

For some, this may mean a simple printed word board. For others, it could be a high-tech device with a unique synthesized voice. Some may use a combination, alternating between low-tech materials at home and an app based AAC aid outside the home.  

 

Ultimately, AAC reminds us that being non-verbal does not mean an individual will never be able to communicate fully and effectively. With patience, the right tools, and support systems, AAC can unlock a world of expression, understanding, and personal growth. 

 

 

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