AAC: What Is It — and How Does It Work? The Basics and More

What is AAC—also known as Alternative, Augmentative Communication? In a world of acronyms and “alphabet soup,” you may have come across the term AAC.  

But what exactly does that term mean? A Google search of “AAC” will reveal over 137,000,000 results—a little overwhelming to put it simply. 

In this article, we’ll break down what AAC is, what it isn’t, and how it supports children and adults with communication needs worldwide.

What Is AAC?

AAC (Alternative, Augmentative Communication) refers to any non-verbal method of communication. This type of communication can include many forms. These forms are referred to as “no-tech,” “low-tech,” and “high tech. ” 

  • No-tech communication. This doesn’t require any materials or tools and might include gestures, pointing, or manual signs. 
  • Low-tech communication. This requires minimal technology to produce and might include picture cards or visuals individuals can point to or look at to indicate meaning.
  • High-tech communication. This may require a technological device and complex programming, such as iPads or tablets with apps for communication.
All of these systems, whether no-tech, low-tech, or high-tech, support an individual’s ability to communicate. 

Examples of No-tech, Low-Tech, and High-Tech Communications

So, what do no-tech, low-tech, and high-tech communication solutions look like? Here are a few examples:

  • An autistic person might be able to sometimes use spoken words to express their thoughts. However, they might still use a low-tech communication board.
  • A person with cerebral palsy who has difficulty producing speech sounds might communicate using a high-tech system. This system may even be activated by a button they use by moving their head. 
  • A person who has had a stroke and now has difficulty speaking might use a notebook and pen to write out their thoughts. 

All of these examples are forms of AAC systems in action. And for the individuals that use them daily, they’re life-changing.

What Isn’t AAC?

AAC is not a trademarked, brand-name, or packaged program. While many companies produce products and tools that help individuals communicate, AAC is anything and everything an individual uses to communicate. 

There’s no program, app, company, or product that’s the “best” for individuals who use AAC. It is essential to take the needs, preferences, and skills of the individual into consideration when exploring AAC options. There is no “one-size-fits-all” AAC option that works for everyone.

Are There Any Prerequisites for AAC?

Nope! All individuals should be given an opportunity to communicate, and there is no hierarchy of skills that individuals must first demonstrate before being given access to AAC. 

For more information about this AAC myth, take a look at this more in-depth blog post.

Do People Who Use AAC Ever Speak?

Sometimes yes, and sometimes no! AAC systems are different for everyone—for some AAC users, a keyboard might be used to type out words that listeners have a hard time understanding. It serves as a tool to “augment” their verbal communication and fix communication breakdowns. 

Other AAC users might experience periods when verbal speech comes freely and different when they use an AAC system because verbal speech is unavailable. Meanwhile, other AAC users never use verbal speech and rely solely on their AAC systems. 

Research has shown that AAC usage does not impede the development of verbal speech and can even lead to increased verbal speech development.
 

How Does AAC Support Children and Adults With Communication Needs?

Many families deeply understand the pain of their child or family member being unable to express their thoughts, feelings, and desires. 

Sometimes children and adults resort to communication forms that can be dangerous to themselves or others to make their thoughts known. 

For many individuals, verbal speech is not functional or comfortable for them. AAC allows these individuals customized opportunities to communicate their ideas without relying on verbal speech alone! 

Where Can I Learn More?

I always direct newcomers to the world of AAC to the website Practical AAC. Here you’ll find helpful videos, strategies, and ideas for helping to teach the use of different AAC systems and increase AAC users’ vocabulary and confidence in accessing their systems. 

I also recommend that those interested in AAC read the blogs of actual AAC users to understand better AAC use, disability rights, and communication access for all individuals. Cal Montgomery is one of these AAC users. 

I highly recommend exploring his blog, especially his blog post, “The First Tendrils of Communication.”

And finally, I recommend finding a trusted Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP) with knowledge of AAC to help guide you on your journey to exploring the limitless possibilities! 

Written by Jillian Hall

Written by Jillian Hall

M.A., CCC-SLP

1 I am electing to use identity-first language to describe the Autistic community in this blog because it is the preference of many Autistic people to be referred to as such. For more information on identity-first language versus person-first language, please visit this blog.

2 “The Impact of Augmentative and Alternative Communication Intervention on the Speech Production of Individuals With Developmental Disabilities: A Research Review” by Diane C. Millar, Janice C. Light and Ralf W. Schlosser in Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, April 2006, Vol. 49, 248-264. doi:10.1044/1092-4388(2006/021)

3 “Effects of Augmentative and Alternative Communication Intervention on Speech Production in Children With Autism: A Systematic Review” by Ralf W. Schlosser and Oliver Wendt in American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, August 2008, Vol. 17, 212-230. doi:10.1044/1058-0360(2008/021)

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