Understanding & Using AAC Devices – Lighthouse Autism Center

Augmentative and alternative communication, or AAC, is a way for people who struggle with speech, or lack the ability to speak entirely, to communicate their needs, wants, and desires. We unpack what AAC is, the types of AAC devices that you can use, their benefits, and more.

Understanding AAC and the Use of AAC Devices

As a parent, guardian, or relative of someone with autism, you may have heard about AAC devices and wondered what they were. Read to discover what AAC is, what these devices do, the different types of AAC available, the benefits they provide, and more.

What is AAC?

AAC stands for “augmentative and alternative communication.” It refers to the wide range of systems and tools used to help people who struggle with speech and those unable to speak at all. This includes people with autism, brain trauma, down syndrome, degenerative diseases, and other conditions. AAC helps these individuals connect and navigate a world where speech is often the primary way of communicating with others. 

In order to better understand AAC, it’s important to unpack what the terms augmentative and alternative mean in this communication system. Augmentative communication systems support or assist someone’s ability to speak. Alternative communication systems, on the other hand, are used in place of someone’s ability to speak.

Different types of AAC

There are two different types of AAC, namely, unaided and aided. We explore the differences below.

Unaided AAC

Unaided AAC refers to a type of communication system or strategy that doesn’t use any additional tools or materials. Examples of unaided AAC are facial expressions, gestures, body language, sign language, and vocalizations.

Aided AAC

Aided AAC refers to a type of communication system or strategy that does use additional tools or materials. Examples of aided AAC are communication boards, choice cards, speech-generating devices, and even apps on mobile devices.

Aided AAC is where AAC devices come in.

What are AAC devices

AAC devices are specific tools used to communicate when an individual is unable to express themselves using spoken or written language. 

The different types of AAC devices

There are two categories of AAC devices: low-tech (non-electronic) and high-tech (electronic). Some common AAC devices that fall into either of these categories are:

  • Low-tech AAC devices: Symbol boards, alphabet boards, communication books, and choice cards. The user may select images, words, or phrases if they are able to do so. If they have physical limitations, gestures, light pointers, gaze, or a head-mouth stick might also be used, or they might use another way to communicate yes or no, such as nodding their head, as someone reads through the options available to them.
  • High-tech AAC devices: Speech-generating devices (SGDs) or voice output communication aids (VOCAs), devices with pre-programmed messages and apps on tablets and smartphones. How a user interacts with high-tech AAC devices varies greatly, depending on its capabilities and the user. For example, some SGDs are operated by hand or using eye-tracking technology.

Depending on the cause of the communication impairment, devices from either the low-tech or high-tech category may be better suited to address an individual’s needs than others. However, while some people may need either a low-tech or high-tech device most of the time, situations may arise where they need a device that they normally don’t use. 

For example, someone who uses symbol boards may have difficulties communicating if they’re in a poorly lit room. Another person who uses a device like an iPad to communicate may find themselves unable to do so if they are outdoors and caught in the rain. This is why it is important that people have access to both low- and high-tech AAC devices where possible. 

Both low-tech and high-tech devices are further broken down into three categories, depending on the type of communication system they use. These three categories are:

Single-meaning pictures

A single image has a single meaning. Users are taught what each image means and how they can communicate by gesturing at the word or selecting it, depending on the type of AAC device. Some limitations of these systems are that they may require thousands of images before they can be used meaningfully; or that it could be difficult for them to communicate more abstract words like “help”, “stop,” or “mine”.

Alphabet systems

Alphabet systems require some level of literacy. Communication takes place with the user pointing at or selecting each letter to spell out the word they are trying to communicate, or choosing from complete words. An example of this would be words printed on cards or displayed on a digital device.

Semantic compaction

Multiple images are used in a sequence to communicate. A single image has multiple meanings – but these meanings may change depending on the combination of symbols. Users are taught the meanings of each image and how to construct sequences with specific patterns that affect meaning.

The benefits of AAC devices for autism and other speech-impeding conditions

For someone with autism, apraxia, traumatic brain injury or other conditions which affect their speech and who struggle with verbal or written communication, AAC devices provide numerous benefits. These benefits can include:

  • Empowering users to become independent
  • Improving the user’s ability to connect with others
  • Improving a user’s speech and written communication skills
  • Improving a user’s overall quality of life by reducing negative factors in their life such as stress, vulnerability, and loneliness.

How to choose an AAC device

Even if you have the best intentions, going in without the requisite knowledge of AAC devices and systems may leave you with a device that is poorly suited at best – or completely unfit for use at worst. This is why it’s important to work with a professional when deciding on which AAC devices to use. Whether it’s a speech-language pathologist (SLP), an occupational therapist (OT), psychologist, or other suitably qualified individual, they will be able to help you choose the best solution that meets the needs of the individual. 

Learn more about our approach to ABA therapy

Whether your autistic child uses an AAC device or not, we can help them develop and reach their goals with ABA therapy. Take a look at our autism resources to help you better understand autism. You can also learn more about our Lighthouse Fusion® ABA therapy program to find out how we can help autistic children improve their outcomes.

Together, we can unlock your child’s potential

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