Augmentative and Alternative Communication

Augmentative and Alternative Communication

For our students with ASD, communication abilities come in all variations. The use of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) is a way to enhance communication for all students, not dependent on communicative ability. Speech development is an area that many believe should be worked on for as long as possible. Regardless of whether a student is working on verbal communication, there is no evidence that AAC hinders speech development. If a student can produce speech sounds or words, then they will use the most efficient and effective method to communicate, which would most likely be speech!

Communication Continuum

Some students may have no functional communication, while others may have fragmented communication. Regardless of the situation, AAC provides each student with access to communicating with others in a universally understood way and enhances independence.

When considering the mode, there is a communication continuum from most-to-least functional:

  • An individual who has a communication system and is using that system to achieve his/her optimum communication potential.
  • An individual, such as a new or inexperienced user, who arrives with some elements of an AAC system but is currently unable to use that system to its full potential.
  • An individual who has no communication system and little/no unaided communication capability.

For a student with limited to no communication, an augmentative communication device might only contain high need vocabulary, such as immediate wants and needs. As the student progresses, more vocabulary could be added or specific attributes such as color or number could be added. The possibilities are endless!

AAC can be advanced as well. Some devices have numerous categorizations that enhance a student's executive functioning, which is the ability to plan and problem solve. The assistive technology is set up in a way that a student would have to know the category of the item they wanted to access the word. While this is a very advanced system, it provides the student the opportunity to move from short phrases to sentences and potential conversation abilities.

In the table below, you can see some examples of low, mid-level, and high tech examples of AAC:

Low-tech AAC Mid-tech AAC High-tech AAC
Typically inexpensive, simple to make or program, requires little training. Examples include but not limited to:
  • Object/picture choice boards
  • Communication/language boards
  • Picture exchange systems such as PECS or modified versions
  • Sign language
  • BIGmack
  • LITTLEmack
  • Partner Plus Communicator
  • Quick Talker 1
  • Cheap Talk
Requires more training to program and maintain, has multiple levels. Examples include but not limited to:
  • Go Talk
  • Quick Talker
  • Communication Builder
  • Chat Box
  • Alpha Talker II
  • Super Talker
  • Tech Speak
Requires more extensive training to implement and program, has dynamic display requiring student to navigate through program. Examples include, but not limited to:
  • Springboard Lite
  • Vantage Lite
  • Maestro
  • Vmax
  • Xpress
  • Tango
  • Accent
  • Nova Chat 7
  • iPad/iTouch with apps such as Proloquo2go, iClick-iTalk, Sonoflex, Go Talk Now

Considering the Need for AAC

Determining whether a student will benefit from the use of AAC is a critical consideration. The educational team should carefully consider the need for AAC for every student with ASD regardless of his or her abilities.

When considering a student's need for AAC, there are four general types of conclusions that can be reached:

  1. The first is that current interventions (whatever they may be) are working and nothing new is needed. This might be true if the student's progress in communication seems to commensurate with his abilities. This consideration is to be documented in the student's IEP.

  2. The second possibility is that AAC is already being used permanently. In that case the educational team should write the specific AAC into the IEP.

  3. The third possibility is that AAC is being used as part of a trial to determine applicability and whether it is effective for the student. In this case, the educational team may conclude that this device should be made permanent or that new AAC should be tried. In this situation, the team will need to document what AAC is being explored or trialed, to insure that it continues to be available for the student. They will need to include the features of the device such as "device speaks the text". Describing the features is a key step for the team in this situation.

  4. Finally, the last possibility is that the student is not using AAC and the educational team determines that the student would benefit from its use. In this case, the team will need to gather more information. There are two primary options for gathering information:

    1. The team can move forward to conduct a student screening for AAC. This option provides an informal procedure for team members to gather information about his or her communication strengths and needs and make an informed decision about the AAC systems to implement.

    2. The team can determine that they simply do not know enough to make a decision and refer the student for a formal assessment. This option requires parent permission and will potentially include individuals outside of the student's typical educational team to conduct assessment activities and make a determination.

    Either option will take an in-depth look at the student's abilities and difficulties and the demands of the environment and tasks.

Using a Team Approach

Any time you are considering the use of an AAC device, the team that supports the student's educational program should be involved in the decision making process. This team will need to include at least the following members:

  • Student, when possible
  • Parent(s) (someone who is knowledgeable about the student)
  • Special Education Teacher (someone who is knowledgeable about the student in the educational setting and the curriculum)
  • Speech Language Pathologist (someone knowledgeable about the potential devices and language and communication)
  • Administrator (someone who can commit the necessary resources)

The team may also include others such as the general education teacher, an assistive technology specialist, an occupational therapist, or anyone else who has knowledge of the student or the devices who can add to the team to support the student.