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Q&A: Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) at School - featured July 28, 2011

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Q&A: Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) at School

By: Patti Murphy

Every student, no matter how outgoing or shy, has a distinctive voice to share. For those with significant speech difficulties related to conditions such as cerebral palsy, autism or Down syndrome, augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) is often the key that opens that voice to the world.

What is AAC?
AAC, generally speaking, refers to strategies and technologies used for self-expression when speech is not the best option. While often associated with electronic speech communication devices resembling laptop computers or personal digital assistants, AAC has many low- or non-tech variations including picture symbols created with Boardmaker software, photographs, manual communication displays (with text and images), eye contact and gestures. Research has found that AAC use may enhance or encourage natural speech.

I work with students who could benefit from AAC interventions. Where do I start?
Students may be referred to a speech-language pathologist (SLP) working within the school system. AAC intervention typically begins with traditional speech therapy focusing on language development, particularly for younger children. A comprehensive assessment may be conducted to determine whether AAC use is appropriate for the child, and which technologies are most compatible with his/her language, cognitive, and physical abilities before the SLP makes recommendations.

What are some helpful ways for school staff to remember that the AAC device is, in essence, the child’s voice and to encourage its use throughout the day?
Adults can gently remind the child to “Use your voice” to reinforce device use, particularly in situations where the child might otherwise point randomly or utter incomprehensible sounds with the intention of conveying a message. It makes sense to similarly prompt device use when the child is about to let someone else, whether an adult or peer, talk for them.

There may be times when the device is not available, or it’s more practical for the child to convey thoughts by touching an object or pointing at pictures in a book. Accepting all as valid methods of communication keeps the flow of communication between the child and conversation partners natural.

Finally, remember that no two students use AAC alike. Chances are they’ll find multiple ways to express themselves, as we all do, depending on the environment and the reason for communicating.

Can you offer examples of successful implementation of the technology in classrooms and suggestions for replicating it?
Closely entwined with literacy development, AAC use can be readily adapted to learning a specific subject and synchronized with academic goals driven by students’ individualized education plans. It enhances participation in extracurricular activities. Students use AAC tools to talk about their weekend during morning circle time, learn parts of speech, compete in debates, solicit sponsors for read-a-thons, do math problems or groundwork for science experiments, and act in school plays. No magic formula makes such possibilities happen, just established practices setting a stage for meaningful, age-appropriate communication. You can:
  • Expect more complete phrasing as children mature. Ask open-ended questions (Who? What? Where?) requiring more than a “yes” or “no” response. Encourage the child to do the same when asking questions. (“What game would you like to play?” instead of “Play game now.”)
  • Let students own their work. With the Windows XP capabilities of current devices, tasks from research to studying for tests can be accomplished independently online. Devices may be used for scanned homework assignments or to run educational software to aid in their completion.
  • Draw on the logical arrangement of AAC device content to help children build sequencing and categorization skills across the curriculum. Onscreen keyboards and word prediction, common device features, offer spelling practice and promote spontaneous interaction.
  • Write a script. This makes sense when the communicative intent is known ahead of time, as when a student, using a device’s cell phone capabilities, calls to ask friends and relatives to support a school fundraiser.
  • Keep in touch. News pages on a device, used actively and reciprocally, can strengthen the home-school connection. Created with the child’s input, the pages streamline the process of sharing information and may include a calendar, visual schedules, and statements describing events at school and home.
  • Have a standing Plan B. In certain situations (field trips, for example), it may be helpful for the child to use printouts of device content instead of the actual technology.

AAC use may shed light on a student’s academic potential and be a catalyst for progress, but first and foremost, it is about functional communication. A math folder on his/her device containing instructional materials for making change is better, for instance, when it also has sentences such as “I need ones and quarters when I go to the dollar store” to put the subject matter in a meaningful context.

What can be done to foster interaction between children who speak typically and those who use AAC technology?
AAC use in itself may be an icebreaker for the child with disabilities and typical peers who find the technology cool, as long as they realize that it is a necessity for their classmate, not a toy. Teachers may introduce the technology through brief, hands-on exploration at the start of the school year if the student using the device and his/her parents are comfortable with that.

Aides often make sure that the child has vocabulary (including current slang) for popular conversation topics with school friends – perhaps a hot toy or movie for younger children, celebrity crushes or clothing for preteens. The helper may then deliberately fade into the background, freeing peers to socialize directly without relying on the aide as an interpreter.

All of the above sounds good in theory, but what if staff members consider their technical skills inadequate?
When it comes to having conversations with children they care about, many adults will do whatever it takes, and that’s not so hard with today’s AAC devices. While minimizing the demands of learning for students, they’re also easy to program. Some devices include extensive ready-to-use vocabulary in customizable page sets tailored to the age and abilities of the user. Cameras on newer devices mean kids can take pictures while on the go, and use them to talk about an activity or event as it occurs. Training resources available through school districts and device manufacturers may help ease the learning process. Manufacturers also offer comprehensive technical support, 24/7, by telephone and online.

Our Featured Guest Blog/Author: Patti Murphy

Patti Murphy writes for DynaVox Mayer-Johnson, which provides complete training and technical support services for AAC, helping educators, speech-language pathologists, and parents help students integrate the technology into their day and find a lasting voice. She can be reached at The website is

Tags: PT Assistive Technology AAC SLP Newsletter 29 July 2011