Transitioning to a New AAC Device or App

Image of AAC, saying Change can be...

I work with several adults who are in the midst of transitioning to new devices. Their old devices are no longer supported by the manufacturers. The new devices look and feel different, even though they come from the same company.  In this case, Word Power in one system may not look exactly like Word Power on another device or app. These adults are long term AAC users and their old devices have been heavily customized. They contain loads of vocabulary for work and for personal interests. One of these young men is an expert on animators and cartoons.

What happens when it is not possible to simply transfer old software to the new system?

This question got us thinking about strategies we can use to make the transition to a new system easier. In one case, the family is keeping both the old and the new devices available.  When M can’t find a word in his new system, he can still go to the old device and let his mom know what he needs. They add that word to the new device. Slowly but surely, he is building up familiarity and a motor plan for using the new system.

It helps that many AAC devices and apps have a Word Find feature. They can search for a word before adding it to the new device. This helps prevent the word appearing in multiple folders and in different locations on the screen.  

This family is also using is leveled flashcards.  They pick a sentence, and then practice creating it on the new speech generating device (SGD). M has some good reading skills and enjoys this kind of practice.  No, this is not embedding learning in the context of a natural routine, but he enjoys this type of practice. It is motivating for him.

Image of AAC question, how do we change?

My other family is still at the stage of choosing their new system.  They are taking advantage of being able to borrow devices from their state AT Lending Library, as well as getting loans from device manufacturers. They believe in “Try before you buy”. The individual, S, is getting a good look at the new system before making his decision.

Both families are discussing the process of transition with the AAC users. They are partners in making these important decisions. We should never forget that the AAC user is a member of the decision making team.

Change Can Be Hard

What can we do if a student is settled in an old system, and doesn’t seem motivated to transition?  This can be a big problem if the old system is not robust, and doesn’t provide access to the building blocks of language. How often do we hear about someone being “stuck at stage of requesting”?

We need to look at the reasons why the person may be resistant to change.  They may have established motor plans with the old system. They may feel secure with what they know. The old system may have given them some measure of control over their environment. Transitions can be scary. We should talk about this, together. Acknowledge what is scary and explain the reasons for the transition. Keep in mind that the individual likely understands far more than they can say.

Using Two Systems During Transition

For some, light tech systems may continue to be what works for best for them.  Others may be transitioning from light tech to an SGD. It is possible to keep both systems available and use them in tandem. This may be the case when transitioning from a picture exchange communication system to something with core vocabulary. Use communication with the old system as an opportunity to model something on the new.

App to App Transition

A transition can be especially tough if both apps are on the same device. I have seen this happen. The person may just press the home button and go back to what they know. If guided access is used, they may become frustrated. There may not be an option to provide a second iPad.

This is another good time to take advantage of your state AT Lending Library. In Pennsylvania, you can borrow at We have a range of robust AAC apps. Tell the library coordinator which apps you want loaded onto the iPad.

You can also use a light tech backup. Take screenshots of the pages from the old vocabulary set. Print the photos and glue them onto cardstock. Laminate the pages, or cover them with clear contact paper. Stick the pages into a binder and make that binder available.  Perhaps you already have a light tech “backup” in place.

The light tech backup will look and feel familiar. When the person uses the light tech to request, use the robust system to model that request. As well, some app manufacturers allow you to print paper communication boards from their websites.  This link takes you to a blog post on this:

Image of hands typing.

Replication of Motor Plans

On the new system, is there a way to replicate the motor plans that have been learned with the old system? This may not be possible on the core vocabulary pages without hours and hours of work.  Chances are, you are transitioning because the individual did not have access to core vocabulary in the first place.

Take a look at the fringe vocabulary they have been using.  These words are likely to be mostly nouns. You may be able to replicate the layout of these nouns in the new system.  You may even be able to use the same symbols. Many AAC apps are folder-based and these nouns will be grouped by categories.

Changing around the fringe folders is less likely to mess with the navigation and grammar in the rest of the app. By doing this, you are also making sure that they continue to have access to what motivates them to communicate.

You can also make the new system look different. You might not have the option to buy a new case for the old iPad, but you can always use colorful duct tape!

At the risk of repeating myself, don’t forget to model! We know that modeling is an evidence-based way to build skills with a new system. You won’t get anywhere by forcing the person to touch the buttons in the new app. Don’t risk associating anxiety with the use of the new app.

Stay a step ahead. If they are making one word requests, model a simple sentence. It may feel like it takes a long time, but the journey is worth it!  Model questions, comments, and jokes. Show the person that the new system also gives them a way to say “NO”. Non-compliance is a powerful skill and may help you get “buy in” with the new app.

What strategies do you use to transition between AAC apps or systems? Leave us a comment and we may add your advice to this post. We will give you credit, of course!

two people with arrows pointing back and forth

And check out Consider Communication. This project was created to support caregivers working with people who can’t speak. There are articles, videos, and, for those who want to deepen their understanding, links to research. Consider Communication can be found on the homepage of


Kathryn Helland

Kathryn is a certified speech-language pathologist and works with children and adults with complex communication needs. She has been with the TechOWL team since 2015 and is currently working on her doctorate. She would like to examine how to best support AAC users in higher education.

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