AAC stands for Augmentative and Alternative Communication. AAC is used when a person has difficulty producing speech for constant verbal communication.
A speech pathologist is trained to work with children, adults, families and other health and education professionals to overcome these difficulties and to help develop an optimal communication system.
“I’m a great believer that any tool that enhances communication has profound effects in terms of how people can learn from each other, and how they can achieve the kind of freedoms that they’re interested in.” – Bill Gates
What do these terms mean?
Augmentative: The oxford dictionary defines ‘Augment’ as ‘to make (something) greater by adding to it; increase’. In the context of AAC, speech can be augmented with gesture, body language, pointing and facial expression.
Alternative: ‘Alternative’ means a choice or the use of a substitute. In the context of AAC, we are able to use alternative communication methods when speech is not viable in the short and/or long-term. Alternative communication methods include using symbols, pictures, signs or writing.
Communication: Communication simply means to send and receive messages between (at least) two individuals. AAC is therefore used to either enhance or supplement verbal communication (speech).
When is AAC used?
AAC is used if speech is slow to develop or as a ‘backup’ if speech is difficult to understand (often referred to as ‘level of intelligibility’). AAC is also used if the ability to produce speech is very limited or if a person cannot speak. AAC can be a short-term option or a long-term communication method. It is important to note that AAC is beneficial for use with both children and adults.
Why use AAC?
AAC acts as an enabler of communication. Every person has a right to be heard, whether it be through speech or another means. As Colin Firth says in ‘The King’s Speech’, “I have a right to be heard. I have a voice!” AAC enables that a child or adult who has difficulty producing speech is able to have ‘that voice’. Through AAC, a child or adult can begin to:
- Develop language skills.
- Minimise the frustration that can be associated with not being able to communicate needs, express wants, and share opinions.
- Increase social participation in a variety of environments.
- Become a key decision maker in what they do and what happens to them and in their day-to-day lives.
Watch Colin Firth argue this point: “I have a right to be heard. I have a voice!”
Will using AAC hinder speech development?
No, the introduction of AAC has does not hinder speech development. A simultaneous communication approach, where the communication partner uses speech in conjunction with a personalised and effective AAC system, is likely to assist in speech comprehension and expression (Beukelman & Miranda, 1992). There are a number of myths that are associated with AAC use – you can read this article for more information about the common misconceptions surrounding AAC:
“Children will use the quickest, most effective, and most accessible way available to them to communicate. Speech beats any other AAC system if it is available to the child. Since AAC includes all communication methods, intervention also addresses improving functional verbal skills. Available research indicates that AAC facilitates spoken language by increasing interaction, language skills, and/or providing a voice output model for speech.” (Cynthia J, Cress PhD)
What types of AAC exist?
Broadly, there are two groups of AAC.
Unaided: This group consists of non-verbal means of natural communication. These communication methods can be implemented by children and adults who are able to use their hands and have fine motor skills sufficient to produce individual movements. These methods of communication (gesture, facial expression, key word sign and sign) require the communication partner to have an understanding of the communication method.
Aided: This group consists of AAC approaches that require external support. This support may include communication boards with pictures, symbols or words, these visual cues represent what an individual wants to communicate. These systems can be ‘low-tech’ (basic single picture boards, written words or sentences, photo books and PODD communication books) or high tech (speech generating devices or computer systems with symbols, pictures or words that, when selected, generates electronic speech). The ongoing development of technology has seen a simultaneous advancement in options for AAC. These developments mean improvements in access (e.g. eye gaze technology) and flexibility (personalised systems).
AAC is not just important in helping people meet their basic needs but important in everyday conversation with a variety of purposes. As speech pathologists we explain, reason, discuss, joke, argue and debate and we do this with multiple communication partners and in a variety of contexts. For this reason, developing a system of AAC should involve family and friends, opportunities to practice and use the system; a wide range of choice options (depending on the needs and goals) and as easy as possible to access.
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This article was written by our Speech Pathologist Jenna Butterworth who is a Speech Pathology Australia member.
If you have questions about Alternative and Augmentative Communication, please contact us on 1300 123 368. Contact us today!
Beukelman, D. & Mirenda, P. (2005). Augmentative and alternative communication: Supporting children and adults with complex communication needs (3rd Ed.). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.
Romskiand, M. A. & Sevcik, R. (1988). Augmentative and alternative communication systems: Considerations for individuals with severe intellectual disabilities. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 4(2), 83-93.
Speech Pathology Australia. (2004). Augmentative and Alternative Communication. Retrieved on 07/08/13 from Speech Pathology Australia.