Assistive Technology for Communication includes many tools and technology. These may be used to help with hearing, speaking, reading, & writing. A big part of AT for Communication is Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC). AAC includes all of the ways we share our thoughts and ideas without talking.
AAC may be any tool, light tech to high tech, that is used to help someone communicate.
Some light tech systems may be made of paper and fit onto a single page. There may be multiple pages that fit into a binder. These systems can include picture symbols, photos, or written words. The choice of a symbol system is individual and depends on the needs and abilities of the user. Light tech AAC doesn’t speak out loud. The user points to the picture to indicate what they want to say. Their partner needs to be looking in order to “hear” their message.
Some mid-tech AAC devices include buttons that are pressed to play a message. These devices might have one big button or many. They usually run on batteries and the messages are recorded. The user can only say what someone has recorded into their device.
High tech devices can be accessed in different ways. Depending on the person, they may touch the screen, press a switch, or use their eyes to speak their message. The speech that comes out of these devices is generated by a computer. This type of speech generating device may contain thousands of words. These words can be combined in many ways. This means that the person can speak words, phrases, and sentences. They can express new and novel thoughts.
Why is it called augmentative and alternative communication? The term augmentative is used when AAC is needed to augment or support someone who speaks. This person may have trouble being understood by unfamiliar partners. They use AAC when they need to repair communication or speak in a novel setting. AAC is an alternative when it takes the place of speech. It can be an option for someone who is not able to speak at all. This may be due to lifelong disability, or an illness that has robbed them of their speech.
The type of AAC that works best depends on the abilities of the user. That is why there are so many choices. As with all assistive technology, there is no “one size fits all”.
Choosing AAC is an individualized decision. First, we need to know about the person’s abilities. This may include knowing about their motor skills, vision, and hearing. Are they able to push a button, or will they need another means of access? We then match that person’s abilities to the tools we think will suit their needs. If the device is not accessible to the person, it is more likely to be abandoned.
We may need to try out several different AAC tools. We keep trying until we find the one that works for that person. We can also provide them with opportunities to make choices. We can set the stage so they have something meaningful to talk about. Learning a new system of communication is like learning a new language. It takes time to gain mastery.
We will know what tool works best for the person when we see them choose to use it. One size does not fit all.