AAC Fundamentals

AAC Fundamentals


Learners who have difficulty expressing themselves may require an alternative way to communicate. Learn more about Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC): who could benefit from it, when and where to use it, and how to support individuals learning language.

Why Try Something New?

Teaching a learner to use AAC was once viewed as the sole responsibility of an SLP. These learners needed to prove they could distinguish between two symbols before “earning” the right to have more symbols or their own AAC system. 

Research now shows that the most effective way for individuals with complex communication needs (CCN) to learn how to communicate is through a team-based, immersive experience.

Frequently Used Terms and Acronyms

AAC: Stands for Augmentative and Alternative Communication; a tool or support that assists a learner with communicating a message.

Access: The way(s) a learner interacts with and controls their AAC.

CCN: Stands for Complex Communication Needs; The difficulty expressing one's wants, needs, and ideas using speech alone.

Communication partner: Any person who could interact with another person. For AAC users, a communication partner may be someone who demonstrates language on their AAC tool (to help the person with CCN learn language) or assists the learner with communicating with alternative access (ex: partner assisted scanning or low-tech eye gaze). AAC users benefit from interactions with other AAC users and non-AAC users. 

Communication display: The screen, page, or picture that provides the symbol options a learner can use to access vocabulary. Communication displays can be static (i.e., does not change when a symbol, word, or letter is selected), dynamic (i.e., changes when a symbol, word, or letter is selected), or a combination of the two.

Complex body: A way to describe the body of a learner who has physical limitations or impairments that prohibit them from moving in a typical manner. Learners with complex bodies often need an alternative method of accessing an AAC tool or device. 

Demonstrate: A term that describes how a communication partner interacts and teaches AAC while pairing it with verbal speech (ex: A teacher points to the symbols "I” and “like" on an AAC system while saying “I like” aloud).  

Symbol: Visual representation of a word or phrase. May be in the form of a graphic, photograph, or written word.

Verbal speech: Refers to the use of spoken words to express ourselves.

What is AAC?

AAC is short for Augmentative and Alternative Communication.  AAC may include communication devices, systems, strategies and tools that replace or support verbal speech.

The first “A” in AAC stands for Augmentative Communication. Augmentative communication is when you add something to your speech such as sign language, pictures, or a letter board. Augmentative communication can help make the message clearer for the listener.

The second “A” in AAC stands for Alternative Communication. Alternative communication is used when a learner is not able to speak or when their speech is too difficult to understand. In these cases, a learner needs a different, or alternative, way to communicate.

AAC can be tools, systems, devices, or strategies. These tools, systems, or devices can help a learner communicate when they cannot rely on speech. Communication strategies can help encourage, support, and teach the learner how to communicate using AAC

Who Benefits from AAC ? Debunking Common AAC Myths

There are many misunderstandings surrounding AAC. In this video, we take the following 5 myths about AAC and aim to debunk them by uncovering the truth.

Myth #1: AAC will prevent a learner from using or developing speech.

Myth #2: An individual can be too impaired to benefit from AAC.

Myth #3: An individual can be too young or old to use AAC.

Myth #4: Individuals who have some verbal speech don't benefit from AAC.

Myth #5: It is necessary to use low tech AAC tools before using a high tech AAC.

(Spoiler alert: All of these statements are false!)

Who is Responsible for Supporting AAC?

If you interact with a learner that would benefit from or who uses AAC, you can impact their learning and use of AAC. 

AAC can (and should) be supported by ALL educational staff - including teachers, paraprofessionals, ancillary staff, administration, custodians, bus drivers, and many more! 

AAC can (and should) be demonstrated ALL day - including during an academic lesson, in the hallway, during a therapy session, on the playground, or while transitioning to the bus.  

Family members and friends are also great models and can support the learner's understanding and use of AAC within the home and community.  It is important that educational staff and families work together to better understand and support the learner's use of AAC across all environments.

How Do Learners Access AAC?

AAC takes many forms depending on the user and their intended message. AAC is unaided when a learner uses their own body to communicate a message. AAC is aided when a learner uses a tool or device in addition to their body to communicate a message. The technology involved with AAC ranges from no tech to low or light tech (no batteries or electricity) to mid tech (requires batteries) to high tech (typically requires charging for power). Learners with CCN should have access to a variety of AAC supports to enable autonomous communication in every setting.

Unaided Aided
No Tech Light/Low-Mid Tech High Tech
  • Facial expressions
  • Gestures
  • Nodding/shaking head
  • Manual signs
  • Body language
  • Vocalizations
  • Verbalizations
  • Objects
  • Photographs
  • Pictures
  • Writing
  • Communication boards (ex: core)
  • Communication books (ex: PODD)
  • Single message devices (ex: Big Mack switch)
  • Recordable, multi-message devices devices (ex: Go Talk)
  • Speech generating devices (SGD; ex: Accent 800)
  • AAC software used on a form of technology hardware (ex: Proloquo2Go on an iPad; CoughDrop on computer)

All learners can access AAC, even if they have complex bodies (i.e., physical limitations or impairments). Learners with complex communication needs may be able to directly select on their AAC, meaning they can point at or touch a symbol or word to express their message. Other learners may require an alternative method of accessing their communication, such as using a head mouse, eye gaze, switch scanning, or partner assisted scanning. There is no “one size fits all” AAC tool, as each tool needs to be considered individually for each learner. Check out this video from Tobii Dynavox that explains appropriate access.

When determining an appropriate AAC tool or device, best practice includes using a comprehensive team approach. All members of the learner's IEP team, including the learner, can provide valuable input in determining the language/symbols, positioning, and assistive technology that could support the learner in becoming an autonomous communicator.

Trialing AAC can be beneficial when determining what AAC tool or device best fits the needs of your learner. There are many ways you can obtain AAC to trial with your learner:

When and Where Can AAC Be Used?

In short, AAC can (and should) be used in EVERY environment. Think about all the places where you communicate something, either by texting, speaking, emailing, or writing. If you can communicate there, your learner should have access to AAC there, too.

AAC can (and should) be used at ANY time, too. Genuine communication happens spontaneously throughout the day. If you can communicate at that time, your learner should have access to their AAC at that time, too. 

For some learners, having AAC all day and in every environment may require an alternate form of or accessory for their AAC tool. For example, learners who use high-tech speech generating devices may need a waterproof case or a low-tech communication board to express immediate wants, needs, or ideas when near areas of water, such as bathtubs, showers, pools, and/or lakes. 

There are no limits to when or where AAC should be used.


Why Should Learners Have Access to Robust AAC?

Everyone has the right to participate in and affect their daily routine and the environment around them. Learners influence their world by effectively communicating their wants, needs, and ideas. 

You can find several specific communication rights in the Communication Bill of Rights (2016). The bill was initially released by the National Joint Committee for the Communication Needs of Persons with Severe Disabilities (NJC) with 12 statements in 1992 and updated to include 15 statements in 2016. 

By understanding and incorporating these rights in your practice, you help advocate for communication services and supports, promote inclusive opportunities, and encourage broader community acceptance.

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