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 gestures, use symbols or pictures, or write. People with severe speech or language problems rely on AAC to supplement existing speech or replace speech that is not functional. Special augmentative aids, such as picture and symbol communication boards and electronic devices, are available to help people express themselves. This may increase social interaction, school performance, and feelings of self-worth. AAC users should not stop using speech if they are able to do so. The AAC aids and devices are used to enhance their communication.
What are the types of AAC systems?
When children or adults cannot use speech to communicate effectively in all situations, there are options.
Unaided communication systems – rely on the user’s body to convey messages. Examples include gestures, body language, and/or sign language.
Aided communication systems – require the use of tools or equipment in addition to the user’s body. Aided communication methods can range from paper and pencil to communication books or boards to devices that produce voice output (speech generating devices or SGD’s)and/or written output. Electronic communication aids allow the user to use picture symbols, letters, and/or words and phrases to create messages. Some devices can be programmed to produce different spoken languages.
Who uses AAC and how do I know AAC is right for my child?
By recent estimates, well over two million persons who present with significant expressive language impairment use augmentative or alternative communication (AAC). AAC users encounter difficulty communicating via speech due to congenital and/or acquired disabilities occurring across the lifespan. These conditions include but are not limited to autism, cerebral palsy, dual sensory impairments, genetic syndromes, intellectual disability, multiple disabilities, hearing impairment, disease, stroke, and head injury.
AAC is probably right for your child when he or she presents with a severe expressive communication impairment that interferes with or prevents with development and use of oral language. The decision to introduce AAC should be made in consultation with a team of professionals who can assist with issues specific to system/device prescription, procurement, and use. The lead professional in this endeavor will typically be the speech-language pathologist. Others who might be involved include but are not limited to occupational therapists, physical therapists, rehabilitation engineers, special educators, vision specialists, audiologists, and psychologists. Finally, when considering AAC, parents and professionals must remember that there are no prerequisites to AAC use. That is, all individuals should have access to AAC systems or devices that promote effective communication.