Having a communication device doesn’t make you an effective communicator any more than having a piano makes you a musician. – Beukelman, 1991
There is more to AAC than a particular communication method, system, or device. Regardless of how a person communicates, there are factors that influence how successful of a communicator they are. We cannot give someone a method or device and expect them to be an expert. We need to provide them support in using this method or device. With support, the person can become a successful communicator.
Communicative competence is the ultimate goal of AAC. It is not limited to a set of skills the person needs to master. It encourages the person to achieve functional communication. Communicative competence empowers the person.
There are domains that make up communicative competence. Janice Light (1989) describes these as linguistic, operational, social, and strategic competence.
Linguistic competence relates to language. It involves the form and content of language. It also involves the symbols of an AAC system and how these can be used to construct language. A person must be able to use their system to express syntactic and semantic concepts to a listener.
Operational competence refers to the physical use and/or navigation of a system. This can be the body movement needed to form a smile, hit a switch, or swipe a screen. It can also be the knowledge needed to use an AAC system. For example, there are a lot of operational skills to learn when using a speech-generating device. A person might need to be able to navigate through pages on the screen to locate specific vocabulary. They also might need to delete a typo or clear a word to repair their message.
Social competence involves the use of language and how someone communicates. It consists of sociolinguistic and sociorelational skills. Sociolinguistics involves pragmatics. What are the social rules needed to communicate? How does the person participate in a conversation (e.g., topic maintenance, turn-taking, conversational repair, communicative functions, etc.)? Sociorelational skills involve relationships. What skills does a person need to develop and maintain relationships? (Light & McNaughton, 2014).
Strategic competence is how an individual overcomes the limitations of their AAC. This refers to the compensatory strategies the person may need to use. For example, a person might have something like this programmed on their device to let a listener know their needs: “I understand what you are saying. I use this device to communicate. Please give me time to write my message.” The person needs to know when to use this message.
Sarah Blackstone and David Wilkins (2009) proposed another competence: emotional competence.
Emotional competence is influenced by social, cultural, internal, and external factors. It includes a person’s awareness and understanding of emotions. This extends to a person’s vocabulary of emotions and how they are able to convey their feelings (this can be tricky when AAC systems may have limited word selection or did not account for inflection or intonation that can change the meaning of a message). Emotional competence is something that grows over time and relates to a person’s level of empathy, their coping mechanisms, and how they are able to self-regulate (Blackstone & Wilkins, 2009). For example, is someone able to express their anxiety in a “socially appropriate” way (this can be influenced by cultural and societal norms!)? Do they have difficulty with sensory regulation when anxious or communicate through behavior? Does their AAC system have words that express how they are feeling? Are they able to understand the cause and effect of their actions, how what they say or do might affect someone else?
The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) proposed an additional competence based on the World Health Organization’s (1997) framework: psychosocial competence.
Psychosocial competence relates to how a person can adapt and function in everyday life. This also includes factors such as motivation, positive outlook on AAC use, and personal confidence, adaptability, and persistence (ASHA, n.d.). Like emotional competence, what psychological competence can look different depending on societal and cultural norms.
These competencies can guide our work with people who use AAC. SLPs, teachers, families, and individuals can shape their goals with these domains in mind. The areas of communicative competence can help individuals obtain the effective and meaningful success that will improve their functional communication.