What is Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC)?

Not being able to speak, is not the same as not having anything to say.
Rosemary Crossley

Being unable to speak is one of the most severe disabilities that a human being can experience. It is difficult to really understand what it is like to be speechless without actually experiencing the condition. Also, many persons who are severely communicatively impaired with respect to speech are also similarly impaired with respect to writing. They are unable to write well enough to meet their communication needs.

If you want to know what it is like to be unable to speak, there is a way. Go to a party and don’t talk. Play mute. Use your hands if you wish but don’t use paper or pencil. Paper and pencil are not always handy for mute persons. Here is what you will find: people talking; talking behind, beside, around, over, under, through, and even for you. But never with you. You are ignored until finally you feel like a piece of furniture.

Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) is a term that is used to describe various methods of communication that can help people who are unable to use verbal speech to communicate. AAC can benefit a wide range of individuals, from a beginning communicator to a more sophisticated communicator who generates his own messages. AAC includes all forms of communication (other than oral speech) that are used to express thoughts, needs, wants, and ideas. We all use AAC when we make facial expressions or gestures, use symbols or pictures, or write.

Some individuals may have a physical or cognitive impairment which disrupts part of the communication process (plan a message, send the message, receive the message, process the message). This may be due to a disability present from birth such as cerebral palsy or Down syndrome, or due to an illness, injury or degenerative disease later in life.  

People with severe speech or language problems rely on AAC to supplement existing speech or replace speech that is not functional. Communication can take many forms such as: speech, a shared glance, text, gestures, facial expressions, touch, sign language, symbols, pictures, speech-generating devices, etc. This may increase social interaction, school performance, and feelings of self-worth. AAC users will not stop using speech if they are able to do so  AAC tools and strategies are used to enhance individuals’ communication. Effective communication occurs when the intent and meaning of one individual is understood by another person. The form is less important than the successful understanding of the message. Any person with a disability that makes it difficult for them to communicate may benefit from AAC. Some people need AAC only for a short time; others may use it throughout their lives. AAC allows an individual to express their needs and wants, and more fully participate in decisions that affect their lives. AAC also benefits family members and other significant others, providing a way for them to more fully communicate with their loved ones.  

There is no risk in giving an AAC system to a child. It will not keep the child from learning how to talk clearly. Instead, it will help the child learn about words and language. For some kids and youth, an AAC system is something that they will use during their entire lives. Other kids and youth use AAC to lean about language before they eventually learn to speak clearly. Learning about language helps them learn how to talk. Every way you look at it, having an AAC system helps the child.

Watch this informative video for an introduction to Augmentative and Alternative Communication AAC.

When individuals cannot use speech to communicate effectively in all situations, there are options.

•    No-tech communication does not involve any additional equipment - hence it is sometimes referred to as 'unaided communication'. Examples are: body language, gestures, pointing, eye pointing, facial expressions, vocalizations, signing.

•    Low-tech communication systems do not need a battery to function and include: pen and paper to write messages or draw; alphabet and word boards; communication charts or books with pictures, photos and symbols; particular objects used to stand for what the person needs to understand or say. This is sometimes referred to as 'aided communication' because additional equipment is required.

•    High-tech communication systems need power from a battery. Most of them speak and/or produce text.  They range from simple buttons or pages that speak when touched, to very sophisticated systems. Some high-tech communication systems are based on familiar equipment such as mobile devices, tablets and laptops, others use equipment specially designed to support communication. This is sometimes referred to as 'aided communication' because additional equipment is required.

The Communication Bill of Rights summarizes the importance of AAC!

The following are some great introduction to AAC resources: