Helping People with Communication Disorders Make Themselves Understood

Categories: ASD and DD, Adult-focused; ASD and DD, Child-focused

[This column was published in the Randolph Herald.]

Have you ever felt frustrated because you had difficulty expressing yourself or making yourself understood? For individuals who have complex communication needs, this can be an everyday occurrence. However, Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) can help people with a variety of communication needs learn how to communicate and participate more meaningfully in life.

AAC is communication by any method other than spoken language. Those who can benefit from AAC range from preverbal children to adults with acquired communication disorders. They may have autism spectrum disorder (ASD), cerebral palsy, apraxia of speech, amytrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and aphasia. The only prerequisite to use AAC is being able to move voluntarily.

There are many different forms of AAC including no-tech, low-tech, mid-tech, and high-tech:

People who use their bodies to communicate are engaging in “no-tech” communication. They might use sign languages such as American Sign Language, SEE (Signing Exact English), sign and gesture, and body language (e.g. pointing, tapping, or leading).

This mode of communication is typically paper-based and does not require battery power. A person uses pictures to replace spoken words. Examples include visual scenes, Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), Pragmatic Organization Dynamic Display (PODD), and communication books.

Battery-powered devices that have pre-recorded voice output capabilities such as buttons or VOCAs (Voice-Output Communication Aides) are examples of mid-tech communication.

Included in this form of communication are speech-generating devices such as the iPad or tablet-based applications including:
TouchChat HD and Wordpower;
LAMP Words for Life (based on principles of motor-planning);
Proloquo 2 Go; and

Why use AAC?
The ability to express oneself in a meaningful way is a basic human right. Having a socially valid form of communication may increase independence, replace or reduce maladaptive behaviors (e.g. tantrums, hitting, etc.), strengthen social connections, and allow access to education.
According to a vast body of research, AAC will not negatively impact a child’s acquisition of speech. In fact, using AAC may encourage speech for preverbal children. In a recent systematic literature review, 89% of AAC users had an increase in their use of speech.

Where and when can AAC be used?
People who use AAC should have access to the use of devices at all times in all settings: meals, lessons, break, recess, etc. This encourages generalization (the ability to perform new skills under different circumstances) and allows a person to communicate in meaningful settings.

How to get started?
AAC does not always have to be expensive or difficult to implement. You can get started on your own. It is as simple as printing out a picture of an object on a piece of paper or using a gesture or sign language.

However, if it is clear that your child or loved one will need ongoing support, you should seek an AAC evaluation from a speech-language pathologist who specializes in AAC.

By Paul Simeone, MA, CCC-SLP

May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis, serving individuals with autism spectrum disorder and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded more than 60 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit