AAC: What is it? Who Uses it? Why Should I Teach It?

AAC stands for Augmentative and Alternative Communication. It’s a right for everyone who struggles with speech or communicating their ideas effectively. We must take the initiative in Special Education and get teaching AAC as a priority. October is AAC awareness month so I thought I would have a chat about the what, who and why of AAC. Read on to find out more.

Poster stating AAC what is it all about who uses it and why teach it with an adult holding a device and the finger of a student touching the device. In the background is a portion of a large AAC symbol core board.

What is AAC?

AAC stands for Augmentative and Alternative Communication. Communication is a two way process. First, we need to gain the attention of another person. Next we have to have the message heard, understood and acted upon. But, not all communicators are able to talk or bring the language when they need it. It is a right for all people to communicate for what they want, when they want and with whom they want. AAC supports those who struggle to achieve this.

Augmentative Communication

Augmentative Communication is used for people when they can not reliably call upon language or verbally communicate when they need to. They may be able to communicate efficiently using their voice some of the time but during periods of anxiety they may need support. Beginning communicators may speak in simple sentences. However, they often have a greater knowledge of language than they can express. Given an Augmentative Communication System, they can express themselves at a higher level. The support could take the form of printed books or boards but typically these communicators will be supported by high tech systems (apps on iPads or specific speech generating devices).

Alternative Communication

Alternative communication is used in place of talking for those who have complex communication needs. It may take the form of vocalisations and gestures such as pointing, taking a person by the arm, facial expression with or without vocalisations, through to more robust AAC systems.

Mid section of an adult holding an iPad with the Arm of a student pointing (touching) an iPad High Tech AAC system with a partial sighting of a large AAC symbol core board in the background.

Robust AAC is typically either in a symbol book form (such as PODD); a board with core language (most frequently used spoken words) and fringe (nouns and less frequent but important core) attached or high tech options. AAC can be accessed in a range of ways. For example, by touch, by eye gaze, by switch or by another adult pointing or touching a device as indicated by the AAC communicator. Examples of high tech systems you may have heard of are Proloquo2Go; LAMP; Touch Chat and the PODD and CORE FIRST apps.

Who Users AAC?

Some children as young as two and three years require AAC. Many students within Special Education have complex communication needs. It could be secondary to Autism, Cerebral Palsy, Downs Syndrome or other medical, genetic and neurological reasons. But school age students are not the only ones who use AAC. Adults with brain injury, strokes, neurological degenerative conditions and patients on ventilators are also users of AAC.

Isn’t Teaching AAC the SLP’s Job?

Glad you asked and the answer is no! Everyone who is part of the team needs to teach AAC. We cannot leave it up to the speech pathologist. They may only be able to visit once a week if we are lucky. Teachers and aides are with the student all day, 5 days a week. Although we are guided by the SLP, the key teachers of communication are school staff and family. It is our priority to teach AAC.

Why Teach AAC?

An image of a poster depicting 3 people with arms around each other Title is Communication Bill of Rights. Around the outside is symbols and information about the rights. More info can be accessed to the article from which this is linked at www.practicalaac.org
AAC BILL OF RIGHTS VIA www.practicalaac.org

It is the right of all people to communicate. In many countries it is covered by law via the IEP. In New Zealand it is not legislated but the Education Act does state that all students with a diagnosed learning disability must have access to an individualised education program to support their access to the curriculum. What is included on the IEP and how it is written is not specified by the law. However, it is my opinion that every student should have communication as key goals on every IEP.

If the student can begin to get their most highly valued wants and needs met, it will make a huge difference to their world and their families. Being able to communicate will lower frustration so you will find an enormous improvement in behaviour in the classroom too!

How Do I Start Teaching AAC?

Begin by liaising with the family and the SLP if you have one available. The student will require a formal assessment to see what system is best suited to their particular needs. But, please don’t wait until that process has been completed as it can take a long time. To begin, simply download a core board and laminate it. Start pointing to symbols as you speak. Great places to start are with highly motivating toys or activities; eating times and morning greetings. I have more reading for you with ideas on planning AAC core words here and here. All major companies have core boards to download for free and I have one here if you would like to download mine.

I hope you gained some information for yourself and feel free to share with others. I would love for you to join my mailing list. Just pop your name and email in the subscriber box to receive weekly tips and tricks via emails and gain access to all of the fab freebies only available to you.

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Until next time,

Aroha, Ann

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