What is Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC)?

AAC - Language with LauraOne of the earliest developing functions of language is requesting. A baby inherently cries when he feels discomfort, and so we give him milk to make that feeling go away. In doing this, he learns that his actions create a chain of events which provides him with something that makes him feel better, gives him what he wants. As he grows and develops, he learns to replace his cries with physical acts – he reaches, he grabs, he points. And further along, he adds verbal language, naming those same items with words.

But what if this child has not developed verbal language that is adequate enough to get his wants and needs met? He resorts to engaging in more premature, or even inappropriate, behaviors to attain his wants. And sometimes, a child may not engage in any behaviors at all, remaining completely passive, yet wanting.

Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) is a term used to encompass a variety of tools used to assist expressive communication. It includes everything from sign language, to pointing, and from pictures, to high-tech devices. If a child has difficulty using verbal language to effectively communicate, then we need to facilitate that communication using a form of AAC.

One means of AAC does not work better than others. The process of finding the one that works best for a specific child involves a number of steps and trials. It’s important to note, that handing a child the highest of technological devices is not always the best option. Start with what’s appropriate for a child’s functioning level. Can he scan a large array of pictures? Are his gross and fine motor skills refined? Does he understand navigating into folders on a dynamic display system? Will he attempt to verbally approximate his requests when using AAC? Does he understand that he has a communication partner? Does he understand the correlation of pictures and objects? Can he even make a choice between 2 preferred items? These are only some of the skills assessed when deciding on an AAC system that would be the most efficient and effective for a child. Speech-language pathologists collaborate with occupational therapists, physical therapists, educators, and even psychologists when assessing a child’s skills across a number of domains – receptive and expressive language, cognitive functioning, motor ability, and motivation, to name a few.

The most imperative advice: always acknowledge and honor any appropriate attempts at communication. Don’t place stressful expectations on the child by demanding verbal language. Let him know that you are proud of his or her efforts.