Did you know that October is AAC Awareness Month? Augmentative and Alternative Communication, or AAC, refers to any communication device, from picture cards to iPads, that assists an individual in communicating. Communication isn't just about words; it's about connection, understanding, and expressing one's thoughts and feelings. AAC devices play a crucial role in facilitating these vital aspects of communication. They are especially important in the context of neurodiversity, where diverse communication needs must be met and celebrated.
AAC options come in various forms, from low-tech picture boards to high-tech speech-generating devices and apps. The choice of device depends on individual needs and preferences, and most are customizable and offer a range of options to suit different communication styles. Many AAC devices are covered by insurance, and current research and neurodiversity-affirming best practice supports the idea that there are no prerequisites for access to “robust” AAC.
Whereas traditional speech-language therapy practices started with “low tech” picture boards, then moved up the hierarchy of technological advancement as the speaker became proficient, updated and affirming practices advocate for the availability of high-tech AAC initially. Undeniably, if a child can navigate an iPad for YouTube and gaming purposes, they can navigate an iPad for AAC, so the argument that kids should begin with less-advanced devices is inherently disproven. Furthermore, research shows that high-tech AAC options are actually easier to master, as our brains operate using “motor memory.” When using low-tech AAC such as PECS (Picture Exchange Communication Systems) picture boards, the pictures are constantly moving depending on activity, thus making it more difficult to memorize and store regularly-used motor plans for communication in the brain.
Historically, AAC has carried some stigma to it, particularly regarding the societal value placed on spoken language and a general view that spoken language is better. While we certainly understand the desire of clients and families to master spoken language, we also want to emphasize that all forms of communication are valid and important. A common misconception is that AAC use will prevent a child from acquiring spoken language, however, a growing body of research has found that AAC intervention often leads to more rapid and versatile mastery of all language modalities (spoken, signed, device-assisted, etc.) Not only does AAC offer more opportunities for language modeling for non speaking and minimally speaking learners, it creates more opportunities to build vocabulary and understand basic concepts, learn the shared nonverbal rules of english via observing modeled device use, and increase connection with other humans.
If you are a caregiver or guardian of a non speaking or minimally speaking individual with an AAC device, we have some takeaways! Particularly for new AAC users who are still working to learn their devices, our biggest piece of advice is to “model without expectation.” Modeling without expectation reduces demands on the AAC user, respects their autonomy, and creates opportunities for them to learn about language without force. We recommend using the AAC device as if it’s your own by modeling phrases and words in real time as you complete daily activities. Regardless of an AAC user’s proficiency with their device, we always emphasize the need to ask the user if it’s okay to use their device. It’s hard to imagine pragmatically, but taking away an AAC device is equivalent to taping a mouth shut. It would be incredibly frustrating and violating! A simple, “Hey, is it okay if I use this to say something?” goes a long way towards continuing to foster autonomy and respect with AAC users.
AAC devices are more than just tools; they are bridges to a world of communication and connection. They empower non speaking and minimally speaking individuals, providing them with a voice and the opportunity to express themselves fully. In the context of neurodiversity, it's crucial to recognize the importance of AAC and embrace it as a means of celebrating diverse communication styles. By supporting and promoting AAC, we can create a more inclusive and accepting society where every voice is heard and valued.