An Intro to AAC
by McKenzie Lee, M.S., CCC-SLP
AAC… an acronym SLPs love to use, but what does it mean? Why should I know about this?
What is it?
Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC)
- Augmentative Communication is assisting or supporting a speaking voice to communicate. This is a fabulous strategy to support and facilitate language with users who have lower verbal skills or those that cannot clearly convey messages all the time.
- Alternative Communication is using a completely different way to talk because using a speaking voice may not be the successful route for some communicators. This could be relying solely on picture icons, sign language, gestures, or maybe a combination of a few different things!
How are you feeling about that explanation? Overwhelmed? Intrigued? Not sure what to think? Wherever you are on the spectrum of feelings towards AAC… Welcome! I am happy to have you here reading and learning Other methods of communication can be intimidating or nerve-wracking. But AAC is a method of communication that is so inspiring, relationship-facilitating, and fun! Most importantly, using AAC helps users learn about and express language to make their voices heard when they have a hard time using their speaking voice functionally or clearly.
Who uses it?
Technically, everyone uses AAC throughout their day. People who are fully capable of using a speaking voice to convey messages may:
- hold up a poster at a sporting event so that the players can more easily understand what they want to say,
- text more frequently when they have laryngitis so they don’t have to use their sore voice,
- point at a sign for someone to look at, or
- use a facial expression to convey how they are feeling. All of these are forms of AAC.
However, those that cannot use a typical speaking voice will be more heavily reliant on AAC to get their needs met, which includes:
- People who convey messages non-verbally: those that cannot use their verbal speaking voice to get their needs met.
- People who convey messages with low-verbal skills: those that use some words, but don’t have the ability to use lots of words using their speaking voice.
- People who have a hard time conveying their messages clearly: those that have a hard time coordinating their speech sounds to clearly and effectively convey the words they want to share.
This could include people with autism, cerebral palsy, apraxia or other severe articulation impairments, dysarthria, aphasia, and many other other medical diagnoses that may impact the ability to successfully use a speaking voice.
Do you know someone who uses a form of AAC? If you don’t know someone yet, you will likely meet someone who uses AAC to communicate at some point. And you want to be prepared for when you do meet someone who uses this method of communication, so keep reading!
I have a successful speaking voice… Why should I use AAC?
Consider an infant… babies are born into this world solely communicating through crying. Then, finally after a year of listening to others, crying and laughing when they need or feel something, and playing with sounds (i.e., babbling), they say their very first word. Yay! That is huge. But think about all of the language that they were immersed in before they finally said their first word — they heard conversations between their parents, heard random conversations from other people while on outings, saw and listened to other people talk to them, etc. Even if they only heard people talking for 8 hours a day every day for 365 days, that is over 2,500 hours of hearing language before finally saying their first word! That is a ton of what we SLPs call modeling- hearing and seeing other people using a skill that the user hasn’t developed yet.
Obviously for communicators learning AAC, they are not starting right from square one. However, we cannot expect a user to be handed some type of AAC (i.e., an iPad software) and immediately begin to push buttons fluently and communicate in full sentences. They need to see others interacting with the words on the communication device – making mistakes, clicking around, formulating phrases of 2-3 words to get needs met – before finally feeling confident in taking a step towards the device and understanding the functionality of it. AAC communicators need to see and hear other people using devices, too!
How can I use it?
You can use AAC strategies to convey any type of language expression!
- Greeting hello and goodbye
- Requesting to get needs met, get things you want, etc.
- Commenting on things you like, dislike, things that are funny, etc.
- Protesting something you do not want
- Asking and answering questions
- Sharing stories
- Telling jokes
When should I use it?
You can use it any and all the time! But, as you interact with an AAC learner, don’t overwhelm yourself by setting a goal to use big, long strings of buttons together for every single message. Set yourself a goal to use maybe 3 buttons (i.e., go, want, more) 10 times throughout a single activity. Activities could include:
- Playing board games
- Reading a book
- Watching TV together
- Playing with toys
What else should I know? *Very important info ahead!*
- Treat the device as the user’s voice. Make sure that you acknowledge attempts made by the user. If a child types ice cream 5 times in a row on their device, don’t just take away the device. Acknowledge that repetition of a word as if they used a speaking voice to chant “Ice cream! Ice cream! Ice cream!” Tell the child, “‘No, it’s 8:00 in the morning, you can’t have that now. Maybe this afternoon though!’”
- Dive in, make mistakes, and have fun with AAC!
Tune in next for how to target AAC during different activities at home!