• Sharon Starkey

AAC Devices and Autism

Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) is a specific type of assistive technology that can benefit people with autism of all ages by promoting independence, expanding communication, and increasing social interactions. Augmentative and Alternative Communication for people with speech disabilities tends to be forgotten and overlooked. Many people are just hearing about AAC, or gaining access to it for the first time. I recently watched a documentary, Wretches and Jabberers, that made me think about how important it is to spread the word about AAC devices and how they have changed the lives of people who use them.

How can I get an AAC device?

The first step is to ask for a communications assessment. You can ask the school district for testing or it can be done by a Speech-Language Pathologist. The questions being asked should be:

1. What device will best meet the persons strengths and needs?

2. What is the best way for the person to access the device?

and 3. What language system is appropriate for the user.

Next, you would choose a device and system. There are many systems available that range from low tech to high tech, dedicated or open systems. Finally, you look for funding. Check with the school system, Medicaid, private insurance, grants and donations. Now, you have your device and it is time for training. It is important to get training from an SLP that specializes in AAC devices.

Using AAC devices

The first few steps in using AAC can feel overwhelming to families and professionals new to this journey because it is essentially learning a new language. AAC devices are tools that help people communicate things they are not otherwise able to say. You will be learning to read and to write and to speak a new language, and all of these things can be challenging at times. Stick with it! Give it time. Learn to use it! The first time the person spells out and communicates their first words you will find so much excitement and joy! In the beginning you will want to start by getting into the habit of always having the system with you. Figure out what you need to make this happen. Do you need a carrying case? Do you need a strap? If you are using the device at school for a child, make sure someone is in charge of making sure the device is taken out of the backpack or carrying case.

You will need to figure out a space for charging the device. This should be a dedicated space so you always know where the device is located at school and at home.

It may be hard at first to understand that what is being typed by the individual is their own thoughts. Never assume they do not understand or mean what they are typing. Validate their thoughts and emotions. We don’t know what is going on inside their head. This is their way of communicating. If you don’t understand what is being said don’t assume---ask! Ask them to state it another way or ask if they can tell you more about what they are feeling. Be sure to give them enough time to think it through and type before putting words in their mouth. Be patient. Remember the goal is to hear their voice and allow them a means of communicating. While I am thinking about it, NEVER take away an AAC device or use it as a consequence. If you do, you are taking away their voice!

Expect when first learning the device that there will be a lot of babble or chatter, maybe even nonsense as they learn to type. They need to learn the location of words, how to make sentences and how to transfer thoughts to words when the word they want is not on their device. They could be just doing self-talk.

Overall, once mastered AAC devices open up a whole new world to users. They finally have their own voice that can be heard!

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