Many Autistic People Use AAC To Communicate, But What Is It, Exactly?

If you’ve been involved in the autism community for any length of time, you may have heard of Augmentative and Alternative Communication, or AAC for short. But what is it, exactly? Are there different types of AAC, and if so, what are they? Will teaching my child AAC inhibit his or her development of spoken language? And how can I teach my child to use AAC?

We’ve got answers to all those questions and more. Read on to learn about this important subject matter within the autism community.

What Is AAC?

AAC is the use of anything other than oral speech to communicate. Everyone uses AAC at times; we wave our hands to say “hello,” we write, we type, and we use facial expressions and body language. Even our use of emojis could be considered a form of AAC!

Adobe Stock/jcomp
Adobe Stock/jcomp

Though all of us use AAC at times, it’s especially important for people who are nonverbal or otherwise struggle with oral speech. That includes many individuals on the autism spectrum.

The Different Types of AAC

There are two main categories of AAC:

  • Unaided relies on use of the body to communicate. Examples include sign language and gestures.
  • Aided relies on some sort of outside tool to communicate. Examples include pencil and paper, communication books and boards, and speech-generating devices.

There’s a wide variety of AAC methods to choose from, including Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), various apps, sign language, and more.

Common AAC Myths, Debunked

Myth: Using AAC will prevent my child from ever speaking or will reduce their motivation to speak.
Fact: This common myth has been debunked again and again by study after study. In fact, research has found that the opposite is true; AAC can actually lead children with autism to speak.

Myth: My child is too young/has too few cognitive skills to learn AAC.
Fact: There is no pre-requisite to learning AAC—not IQ or age or developmental level. In the same vein, a child is never too old to learn AAC, either.

Adobe Stock/Susan Stevenson
Adobe Stock/Susan Stevenson

Myth: My child can already speak; we have no need for AAC.
Fact: Even if your child can speak, AAC can still be beneficial. Many people with autism report that they lose their speech abilities during times of stress.

Myth: We need to extinguish my child’s maladaptive behaviors first; then we can introduce AAC.
Fact: Here’s the thing, though: your child’s maladaptive behaviors likely are his or her current mode of communication. You can’t expect to extinguish one method of communication without providing an alternative one.

How to Teach AAC

Teaching your child to use Augmentative and Alternative Communication can be a bit tricky and takes a lot of time, so it’s important to have someone with extensive knowledge of AAC working alongside you (e.g. a therapist, teacher, or speech and language pathologist [SLP]). But at its core, teaching a child to use AAC is a lot like teaching a typically-developing child to speak.

Adobe Stock/goodluz
Adobe Stock/goodluz

Just to give you a basic sense of how it might work, here are some steps suggested by a SLP:

  1. Get help from an AAC evaluation team (typically an occupational therapist and SLP) in helping you choose the best AAC method or device for your child.
  2. Get to know the AAC method yourself (how are you supposed to teach it unless you know about it, too?).
  3. Use the AAC method around your child; model how it works.
  4. Let your child experiment with the AAC method, even if that means just pressing random buttons to hear sounds. It may not be meaningful communication right now, but reinforce this—and even respond to it as if it were meaningful—and they will eventually learn that these tools have power.
  5. Ensure your child always has access to the AAC method.
  6. Give your child opportunities to use the device in a meaningful way.
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