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What is AAC, and How Do You Know if it’s Right for Your Child?

What is AAC, and How Do You Know if it’s Right for Your Child?

By Fraser Senior Speech-Language Pathologist Laura Nathan • November 05, 2020

Holding your finger up when you’re on the phone — we all do it. What you might not realize is that every time you communicate nonverbally like this, you are using a form of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC).

For children who are non-vocal communicators and have difficulty communicating everything they’d like to communicate vocally, AAC provides a way to communicate and connect with the world. But AAC isn’t limited to children. We all use it to some degree, and anyone who has trouble vocalizing their needs can benefit from its use.

How does your child use AAC?

According to Fraser Senior Speech-Language Pathologist Laura Nathan, there are many forms of AAC. Some low-tech versions of AAC include gestures, sign language, communication boards and Picture Exchange Communication Systems (PECS). PECS is a collection of pictures of different items that people can point to or give to a partner to communicate with others. With PECS, children who have difficulty speaking can hand a picture of an apple to a caregiver to state that they want an apple.

“One of the first questions a speech-language pathologist asks is usually, ‘How does your child tell you what he or she wants?’ Most often, a parent says the child will cry or reach out for what he or she wants. We usually start with a piece of paper and draw a child’s favorite toy or food. This is how we start using AAC and help create a common language with the child’s caregiver,” says Nathan.

Then there are high-tech types of AAC, which include speech-generating devices (SGDs). These are electronic devices that produce sounds and words when activated. An individual touches either a picture or a button associated with a picture, and then the device says the word. For example, with an SGD, a child could ask for a doll by touching a picture of a doll, and then the device says the word “doll” out loud. Speech-generating devices can be tablets, smartphones, computers or even smartwatches. And best of all, these devices can go with you wherever you go.

There are different ways a person can activate an SGD. Many are activated by touch, but these devices can also be controlled with eye gaze, or in the case of famed physicist Stephen Hawking, through the movement of his cheek muscles.

How do you know if your child needs help?

It may be hard to know if your child has a problem with his or her speech that needs to be addressed. Here are some indications your child might need some help:

  • Problems expressing his or her wants and needs
  • Difficulty understanding his or her speech
  • Not using vocal language
  • Not meeting typical speech and language milestones

Nathan says any of these concerns are a good reason to get a speech evaluation for your child.

Using AAC creates new opportunities to connect

The use of AAC can be transformative for children and their families. Nathan worked with a child who had frequent bouts of frustration because he couldn’t communicate. He would cry or throw things. Then Nathan started using an SGD with him. He began to pick up puzzle pieces with animals, select the animal on his SGD and then his SGD would say the name of the animal.

“He just rocked with joy and laugher from being able to identify the animals around him,” says Nathan.

AAC can help kids start speaking

Nathan says parents often express concerns that if their child learns AAC, they will never learn to speak verbally. Speech-language pathologists and research have found the opposite is true. Many kids model what they hear from a speech-generating device. So they start to vocalize more frequently as they hear their device say words like “apple” or “doll.”

“It must be frustrating for children not to have that shared language with people that love and care for them, but AAC gives them a chance to share that language. It allows kids to finally communicate with their families,” says Nathan. “Every single person deserves to have a voice.”