Autism and Augmentative Alternative Communication

pic art of two people communicating using a symbol chart.

Author: NCSE Advisors and Therapy team members

For some autistic students, oral speech may not be their primary method of communication. They may use other methods to communicate that include the use of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC). This mode of communication gives children a voice and enables them to interact successfully with others.

What is AAC?

AAC involves all forms of communication, except for oral speech, to enable individuals to express their needs, wants thoughts, and ideas. Examples of AAC include the use of objects, signs, pictures, and written text. AAC can be divided into high-tech and low-tech devices.

High-tech devices need a battery to work. A high-tech device allows a student to express himself or herself using pictures, symbols, or words that can be linked to electronic voice output.

High tech AAC device consisting of an app on an iPad
(source Advancing Opportunities)

Low-tech devices refer to an AAC device that does not require a battery, such as objects, communication books, and boards with pictures and symbols.

AAC board with pictures and symbols used as a communication board.

What AAC devise to use?

Assessment of students is necessary before selecting and implementing a device. This assessment process can involve a Speech and Language Therapist and other professionals such as an Occupational Therapist, the student himself or herself, and important people in the student’s life including parent/guardian and teacher. It is important to consider a student’s environment and his or her preferences of AAC. It is also necessary to involve family members when deciding on the AAC that will support a student. 

Every autistic student is a unique individual with their own strengths, needs, and preferences. The selection of an appropriate mode of AAC needs to reflect these to enable the student to participate to his or her full potential in the environment. AAC needs to be adapted to suit a student to support the development of their abilities, and support their needs, enabling them to engage in their environment. High-tech AAC devices are motivating for students. However, it advised that a backup support plan is available for students who require this access to address times when technology breaks, or when a battery is no longer working. It is advised that a low-tech AAC device should always be available as a backup to ensure students have the supports they need.

Top Tips for supporting an AAC user:      

numbered list
  • MODEL the use of the AAC.
  • Give the AAC user time to express their message.
  • Be consistent! If using a device, use the same AAC device at school and at home.
  • AAC is not just for requesting; AAC is also used to initiate, comment, tell stories, ask questions and engage in a conversation with others.
  • Create opportunities for the AAC user to actively use their device/mode of AAC to interact with you and others both at home and in school.
  • The device must always be available e.g. when you leave the classroom, you must take the AAC device with you or have another device available.
  • As the child’s skills develop and their needs change, their device needs to be updated also to accommodate for this.
  • Pay attention to other cue’s and gestures that the AAC user uses e.g. facial expression, body language.
  • In school or home environment, be mindful of how noisy it us and if the AAC user’s device can be heard.

AAC in the community

Wexford County Council implemented a Communication Board in Min Ryan Public Park. The communication board includes letters, numbers, symbols and pictures and is colour coded for the different types of words. This is a fantastic initiative to make AAC more accessible in the community.

Communication Board in Min Ryan Public Park
source Local Government Information Unit

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