Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) devices are common communication tools used by clients and their families. They are often used in the form of an app on a tablet device but could be fitted to laptops or as low-tech as an array of photos or written words that the user will indicate with. Regardless of the type of AAC, below are some tips to facilitating introduction and use of AAC devices for support staff and caregivers.
The first tip is having the AAC device always within proximity and ready to use. For different devices this may entail different steps. For example, for picture AAC this may just be having it within reach whereas with a tablet or laptop it might mean having it within reach and charged. Learners come into contact with a multitude of different opportunities to utilize their AAC in different ways, so having it at the ready is a huge help. In the time it takes to find the AAC, identify the appropriate images or words, and use them functionally; a learning opportunity could pass them by. Think response effort, the easier it is to use something the more willing the learner will be to use it.
The second tip is to respect the AAC device for what it is, that learner’s way of communicating and relating to their environment. As they progress it will be a vital tool for them to communicate their needs. By blocking, taking away, or otherwise withholding access to an AAC device the individual is being cut out from their way of communicating. This is when guided access on a tablet is an especially useful tool (see link below). It allows for tablet AAC users to have access to their communication tool while restricting access to other distracting apps. If a learner seems to be fixated on a target, acknowledging and redirecting is often the best route. For example, a kiddo continues to press “Oreo” during class and causing disruption. Instead of removing the device, acknowledge that you understand and redirect when it will be available (i.e. home, lunch, etc.). This reinforces the AAC as an avenue for functional communication and teaches the learner when that request can be reinforced.
Last but not least, having a backup is always a good idea especially for those using tech devices. Electronics can glitch and/or run out of battery unexpectedly. Life happens, so having a low-tech alternative and working on approximations and requests in conjunction with AAC devices is a great way to stay prepared. This can be as simple as having a hard printed AAC visual in the same pouch as the AAC as a backup or using sign language. A common concern is that the use of an AAC device will delay or hinder language development. Research has shown that utilizing an AAC device actually has the capacity to assist with language development. This means through the use of the AAC with learners, staff also have the opportunity to practice approximations and language with learners to have those skills should the AAC not be available.
There are a variety of AAC devices and programs. Always consult with a Speech-language pathologist (SLP) if you have questions and/or concerns regarding the choice or use of one with your learner. By coordinating with the SLP and other support providers (OT, ABA, PT, School staff, etc.) you ensure a consistent approach and set your learner up for success.