Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) 101



Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) 101 |





What is AAC?

(Source: ASHA Website; Click here for more information)
Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) is identified as any form of communication other than spoken/oral language used to express thoughts, needs, wants and ideas.

Review the range of AAC technologies by reading the information, viewing the presentation, or downloading the handout view here.
  • AAC includes a range of communication strategies and supports.

    • AAC can be no-tech to high-tech devices. It serves to minimize or compensate for communication difficulties.
    • These approaches can help individuals who have functional communication impairments, or complex communication needs.
    • AAC includes all communication acts that supplement (augment) or replace (alternate) spoken communication.
    • It includes “Anything that helps children [or adults] to communicate when traditional strategies are not sufficient to accomplish a communication goal.” ~Cynthia Cress, 2000


  • AAC isn't Either/Or

    • A variety of strategies and tools can be used at one time.
      • Just because a person uses an AAC device doesn't mean she can't also use speech, gestures, or other forms of communication. She doesn't have to pick one or the other - she can use ALL.
    • One device/strategy may not (and doesn’t have to) meet all needs.
      • Communication needs change across time, partners, and environment. Someone could be successful using verbal speech with his family, but need more help (like a low-tech communication board) to talk to new people at a restaurant.

  • AAC use can be Temporary or Long Term

    • Temporary AAC supports help when a condition prevents a person from communicating verbally.
      • For example, patients in the hospital may use an alphabet spelling board to communicate when they have a breathing tube preventing them from speaking.
      • Children may use AAC while they are working to develop or improve their spoken speech. Later, they may not need these same supports.
    • Long Term AAC can help people who have chronic or ongoing conditions.
      • AAC approaches can be used across the lifespan, but the specific strategy or device will probably change across time.
    • AAC does NOT prevent individuals from developing or using spoken speech. Instead, research shows that AAC provides an easier, more functional means of communication for individuals with complex communication needs.

  • AAC can be Expressive or Receptive

    • Techniques can be used to support a person's expression and/or his understanding of communication.
    • A communication partner can add gestures, point to objects, or use pictures to help the person understand the message. This is still considered AAC.

  • AAC is dynamic

    • Communication is a life-long process. Communication and AAC are constantly evolving.
    • A person's communication needs will change across time. So does technology, our understanding of what works, and the person's experiences.
    • Just because a person "tried AAC" in the past, doesn't mean we shouldn't take another look. There may be new ideas, attitudes, or devices that can help now.

Unaided AAC

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Examples of unaided AAC strategies

American Sign Language

  • American Sign Language (ASL) is a form of no-tech communication.
  • Click here to view a handout with basic ASL vocabulary (alphabet, numbers, colors, common phrases).
  • ASL University (Lifeprint.com) offers a free online sign language dictionary and lessons. ASL signs are shown with illustrations and/or videos.
  • ASLpro.com has online video dictionaries and a quiz mode to help learn American Sign Language. It also offers a "Conversational Dictionary" that supports use of signs in common phrases.
  • SigningTime.com has a "Sign of the Week" e-mail and a free video dictionary of common signs.

No Tech paper-based

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Examples of Low Technology AAC

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Example Communication Board made at ConnectABILITY.ca Click here to download PDF file.

Making your own communication boards can be easy!

Here are some helpful tips:


  • Use the "Visuals Engine" on http://connectability.ca/visuals-engine/ to design and print your communication boards. Create a free log-in to use this resource. It lets you make boards with 1-16 images per page. You can use their pictures, or upload your own. You can even add a text label.

  • Download and install the Picto-Selector program (www.PictoSelector.eu/index.php) on your computer. This free software gives you access to 1000s of picture symbols. It also allows you to use your own photographs and re-arrange the boards as many times as needed. You can save the file to make changes later. You can also save or print as a PDF file.

  • Find pictures in newspapers, magazines, or circular advertisements. Just cut them out and tape or glue them to your communication board or book. This works especially well for pictures of foods or objects (e.g., toy, tv, movie).


Low Tech

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Examples of Mid Technology AAC

Did you know some stores carry recordable products that can also be used as AAC!

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Picture of "Talk Point" recordable buttons.


  • Hallmark - search stores or online (www.Hallmark.com) for the term "recordable" to find books, photo albums, and photo frames.





High Tech

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Examples of High Technology AAC

  • High-Tech Devices are made by several companies companies. Below are a few of the well-known manufacturers of "dedicated" speech-generating devices. You can read more about them on the Product Resources page.
    • Tobii DynaVox makes: Maestro, M-series, I-series T10, T15, C8, C12 and C15 (the number represents the size of the screen) and offer the Compass (DynaVox) and SonoFlex (Tobii) iPad apps. -- Tobii is known for their eye-gaze units to allow you to "point" with your eyes to communicate with their devices.
    • Prentke Romich Company (PRC) makes: Springboard Lite and Vantage Lite, Accent 1200 (700 & 1000 coming soon), and ECO2. They are known for their Unity (MinSpeak) software. They also offer the LAMP iPad app.
    • Saltillo makes: NOVA chat (5, 10, 8 & 12) -- also offer TouchChat iPad app

  • For more information about AAC devices, see the Product Resources or iTechnology pages.

  • You can also visit www.AACTechConnect.com and access the free trial of “Device Assistant” to learn about available features of AAC equipment. This tool helps you match devices to the features you want:
    • EX: only devices with ABC typing, large screens, and lightweight

Alternate Access

Alternate access allows people to interact with and control their world, even with limited use of their hands! Switches give people the power to use small movements (or even breath) to activate devices. Switches can be used to access communication devices or for environmental control (e.g., turn on/off lamp, radio, change TV channel).
To learn more about switches, see the Presentation below (or view the handout PDF file).

Alternate access requires creative problem-solving to find the right position for the person (and the switch). Let's Play-Buffalo offers some ideas for positioning switches in this PDF handout.

What is functional communication?

Participating productively in interactions with other people requires functional communication skills (National Joint Committee for Communicative Needs of Persons with Severe Disabilities, 1992).
  • Individuals who have functional communication skills have the ability to communicate for a variety of purposes (e.g., give directions, share opinions, ask for a drink) to a variety of people (e.g., strangers, friends, family) relevant to their life experience.
  • Functional communication skills include having the ability to use a variety of modes, or ways, of accomplishing communication goals (e.g., waiving, writing, speaking).
  • An individual with functional communication skills is able to begin, maintain and end social interactions effectively.
  • For many communicators functional communication occurs everyday in real life or natural settings.
  • For individuals with complex communication needs, achieving functional communication often requires implementation of AAC strategies and tools.




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