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Communication Disorders: What Is AAC?

Photograph by Getty Images

You might not even realize it, but every day you use alternative forms of communication. Gesturing, pointing, shrugging your shoulders, facial expressions—these are all alternative forms of communication that get your message across strong and clear without using oral speech.

In special education, we sometimes have to consider alternative and augmentative communication (AAC) for kids who are not able to communicate in a typical way. This is a fancy way of saying that when a child has a severe communication disorder, we are going to find another way for them to express themselves that either complements what oral speech they have, or—if they have none—replaces it.

There are two types of alternative and augmentative communication. Most people are already familiar with unaided AAC (even if they don’t realize it), which includes sign language, body language, and gesturing. When we teach a late talker a few baby signs, we’re using unaided AAC.

A lot of people thought that this video that went viral over the holidays was adorable, but it’s also a great example of unaided AAC. Not only does the little girl sign the words to the songs, but watch her exaggerated facial expressions and gesturing to indicate the playfulness of the music.

Sometimes, however, a person needs an aided form of AAC. Aided AAC involves some sort of device or tool that helps the user communicate wants and needs, thoughts and ideas.

A communication board or book is a commonly used AAC tool. Pictures, photos, drawings, or words are placed on a board or into a book, and the person points to a picture to communicate an idea. At a very basic level, this can be as simple as choosing one of two toys or snacks, but communication boards can be far more complex than that.

AAC is a powerful tool to help children with communication disorders express their thoughts, feelings and needs.

A higher tech alternative is a speech generating device (SGD). This is an electronic tool that allows the user to make choices (again, using pictures, symbols or words) and then generates the spoken word for them. An SGD can be as simple as a laptop with text-to-voice software, or it can be a device specifically made for the user to communicate.

Watch the videos below to see three SGDs in use. In the first video, a young child uses an SGD to say that he wants to use the computer.

In the second, a student uses eye gaze to select the words that he wants to see. You can see that SGDs can be simple or complex based on the needs of the student.

And in the third, a preschooler who is learning to put two words together uses an SGD to talk about colors with his speech therapist. Depending on a child’s needs, a device may be needed permanently for communication, or may be a temporary tool to help them along the way.

These are just a few examples of AAC devices that you may see being used in your child’s school. The forms of both aided and unaided AAC are diverse and are based on a specific child’s needs. Whatever form it takes, AAC is a powerful tool to help children with communication disorders express their thoughts, feelings, and needs. This gives them more control over their daily environment, which in turn reduces frustration and allows them to interact in conversations and develop deeper relationships with other people.

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