Communication & AAC
October is AAC awareness month, so it is only fitting we shed some light on it. Unless you’re a fellow speech-language pathologist (SLP), or have had the fortunate experience of meeting an AAC user, this may be a foreign concept for many.
What is AAC?
Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) encompasses communication systems, strategies, and tools that replace or supplement natural speech for communication. AAC is rooted in the philosophy that communication is not limited to just speech. Communication can come in many shapes and forms.
For many of us, verbal communication is our dominant medium of choice, however, we also write, gesture, sign, and for some, use AAC.
Communication enables us to both express ourselves and communicate with others. Functional communication, however, is the primary goal for most of us whenever we engage in social interactions; it is how we participate in various activities and across many environments. Similarly, the primary goal of AAC systems is to increase the functional communicative capacity of users, so that they too may increase their participation in daily activities (Light & McNaughton, 2014).
AAC users may have diagnoses or disorders that limit their ability to use natural speech to communicate. The use of AAC provides them with the opportunity to engage with others and participate in a variety of activities—this could be communicating with family members, participating in classroom activities, or getting involved in community programs. As varied as the population of AAC users are, so are the number of system options that can be selected from—it is not a “one size fits all” model.
AAC options range from low tech (e.g., pen and paper), to light tech (e.g., pictures created on a computer that are printed onto a page), to high tech (e.g., an app on a tablet). There is no “right” or “wrong” choice when it comes to selecting an AAC system, but it may take some time to find the best match.
You may still have some concerns about opting for AAC, so here are three myth-busting truths about it:
MYTH #1: Using AAC may isolate the user, or discourage them from developing and using verbal language.
FACT: AAC use not only promotes communication and social participation, but also has been shown to reap benefits for speech production in children with developmental disabilities (Drager, Light, & McNaughton, 2010).
MYTH #2: AAC is an easy alternative—they just figure it out.
FACT: Learning to use AAC for communication isn’t any different than learning to speak or write—it takes explicit teaching, and lots of practice! As Jane Korsten very poignantly put it, “an average 18-month-old has been exposed to 4380 hours of oral language for about 8-hours per day since birth. A child with an AAC system who receives speech-language therapy 2 times per week for 20-30 minutes will reach the same amount of language exposure (in their AAC language) in 84 years.” It is going to take everyone—not just the SLP but also their family and friends—to help the individual learn to communicate using their system. Just take a peek into the lives of the Owens family at We Speak PODD!
MYTH #3: We should wait for the individual to be ready before we introduce AAC.
FACT: As a mentor once said to me, “If they can breathe, they can use AAC.” We are fortunate to live in a world where technological advances are constantly ongoing. With the right combination of systems and features, any individual—yes, regardless of age, mobility, or language skills—can find their AAC match.
When all is said and done, AAC systems are just another tool that we can use to achieve functional communication and life participation. For some, this can make a world of a difference, and open them up to opportunities once thought unimaginable.
Drawer, K., Light, J., & McNaughton, D. (2010). Effects of AAC interventions on communication and language for young children with complex communication needs. Journal of Pediatric Rehabilitation Medicine: An Interdisciplinary Approach, 3(4), 303-310. DOI 10.3233/PRM-2010-0141
Light, J., & McNaughton, D. (2014). Communicative competence for individuals who require augmentative and alternative communication: A new definition for a new era of communication? Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 30, 1-18. DOI: 10.3109/07434618.2014.885080