Having a child who is non-verbal or who has a speech and language disorder does not necessarily mean a life of not understanding what they want, where they hurt, and even their thoughts, ideas and inspirations. While functional speech is usually the initial goal of families attempting to introduce AAC, providing the opportunity to unlock their child’s voice through an alternate method can mean that functional speech is only the beginning.
What is AAC?
AAC stands for Augmentative and Alternative Communication and includes all communication methods used alongside or to replace speech for those who are unable to speak due to a speech and language impairment. AAC includes unaided and aided (low-tech and high-tech) forms and many people use a combination of methods. AAC can unlock the voice of a person unable to use theirs, providing the ability to access functional speech (such as making a choice) as well as providing insight into the person’s thoughts, feelings and inspirations.
Who uses AAC?
Stephen Hawking, widely recognised as one of the world’s finest minds used AAC. So does JJ DiMeo, the fictional character on the hit American TV series, Speechless. People with autism, cerebral palsy, hearing impairments, intellectual disabilities, acquired brain injuries and degenerative disorders such as motor neurone disease, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease can all use AAC to help access their voices.
Should I introduce it to my child?
If your child is unable to communicate as much as they want/need to then AAC is for them.
Won’t it stop my child from speaking?
No. In fact, studies have shown that learning a form of AAC has increased speech ability in people with autism and developmental delays.
What skills does my child need to be able to manage AAC?
None. It used to be widely thought that the child needed to have mastered certain skills prior to the introduction of AAC, including being able to understand cause and effect (that the picture represents an object) and some language, as well as having motor skills sufficiently developed to manage a device, and an interest in communicating. This is no longer the case and the concept of ‘Presume Competence’ is now embraced by practitioners who say that all those skills can be learnt during the process of teaching and modelling AAC, just as a baby, who has no knowledge of language, learns to speak after we surround them with words all day long, in numerous capacities.
Unaided or aided? Low-tech or high-tech? What’s the best?
Most people who use AAC use a mixture of options and, although we live in a high-tech world, high-tech is not necessarily best. It is important to find the AAC method that best suits your child and your family and be open to using a mix. Low-tech options (such as PODD) often mesh well with a high-tech (such as eye-gaze).
Unaided: Sign language, gestures and facial expressions all fall into this category.
Aided: Aided communication devices come in two formats: low-tech and high-tech.
Low-tech: Low-tech devices are any devices that don’t require batteries, electricity or electronics to function. Examples of low-tech devices include PECS and PODD.
High-tech: High-tech devices can be either specifically created for AAC or devices that use programs or apps that allow for AAC (like computers or iPads). High-tech devices also include speech generating devices (SGDs) and Voice Output Communication Aids (VOCAS).
Respecting multi-modal communication
If you are teaching your child to use a new AAC device, it is particularly important to respect multi-modal communication. Multi-modal communication is used by all of us. We don’t only communicate using words: we smile at someone to greet them, wink at a joke, wave goodbye, send a text, write a letter – and they’re all great ways to get our point across.In the same way, someone using an AAC device is also able to use many communication types and it is important to be open to that. When teaching a new communication method, it is important to recognise that often a point, gesture, or sign is the easiest and most effective way of communicating something and not to dismiss that by insisting that the same message is given again on the device. The aim is to help your child communicate, not to frustrate them out of trying to learn a new skill. For more information about multi-modal communication, see our resources section at the end of this article.
What do else do I need to know?
There is no way to sugar coat this: teaching your child how to communicate through using AAC is hard work. If you think of how many words a baby will hear in the first year of their life before they begin to use the most basic of speech, and then how many more they need to be exposed to before they have a full grasp of language, you will understand that a weekly session with your speechie is not going to cut it in terms of teaching your child to use AAC. You are going to have to learn to use it and then model it. All the time. It is not a commitment for the faint of heart, but then, we special needs parents don’t back away from a challenge, do we?
And the rewards?
Hearing your precious person saying: “I love you” for the first time, or being able to tell you that they like the pink dress or want a drink of lemonade and not juice – priceless.
Where to go for more information
There is some incredible information available to help and guide you through this process.
Some great places to start are:
www.praacticalaac.org – PrAACtical AAC supports a community of professionals and families who are determined to improve the communication and literacy abilities of people with significant communication difficulties. This site is the bomb – you will find everything you need to know about AAC here.
www.niederfamily.blogspot.com.au – This isn’t actually a blog about AAC but it is about a family who have a daughter with a disability and their passionate embrace of AAC. Dana is the wise, funny, warm-hearted mum, who shares the ups (and downs) of teaching and modelling AAC in a very real way. You will be charmed. And inspired.
www.angelman.org/resources-education/communication-training-series – An amazing free series of webinars on AAC and literacy by the Angelman Syndrome Foundation.
www.assistiveware.com/dos-and-donts-aac-multi-modal-communication – An excellent article on the dos and don’ts of multi-modal communication.
Facebook Support Groups:
PrAACtically Speaking AAC – Australia – run by Irene Hunter, our wonderful family case study mum.
Parents of Proloquo2Go Users – a closed group for parents of Proloquo2go users.
AAC Through Motivate, Model, Move Out Of The Way – a closed group about AAC.