AAC stands for Augmentative and Alternative Communication, and it’s a term used for all kinds of methods that can be used for communicating other than speech. October is AAC Awareness Month, and last October I wrote a big old blog post about AAC: Basic Facts And Helpful Resources, which is still relevant and informative, but not very succint and to the point. So this October, my plan is to do a few shorter and more focused blog posts about different aspects of AAC – and this is the first one! So:
AAC Apps: Who Are They For & What Is So Great About Them?
Well firstly I should explain what I mean when I say ‘AAC apps’. The apps I have in mind are robust communication apps made for use on a device such as iPad or other tablet, with some also available for laptops or smartphones. Many (if not most) of them are iPad versions of designated communication systems that have been created for use with a specific speech-generating device. Some popular examples of AAC apps are TouchChat, CoughDrop, Proloquo2Go, LAMP, and Grid (by Smartbox).
Who Are AAC Apps Useful For?
Anyone who cannot reliably use speech to communicate could benefit from using AAC. This could be a person who cannot speak at all due to disability, injury or other medical condition, but also someone who has some ability to speak, but who isn’t able to speak clearly, or who loses the ability to speak in certain situations (often due to extreme levels of anxiety, as is the case for those with Selective Mutism).
There are many forms of AAC, not only apps or other high tech solutions. Things like pen and paper for writing, or body language, signing etc are also forms of AAC. What I’d like to focus on in this post however, are the benefits of AAC apps in particular.
If you have a child who is nonverbal/non-speaking and autistic (as my son is), and perhaps has a learning disability too (just like my son), you might think that they are ‘too disabled’ to be able to use an AAC app. Some people might actually have told you so. Unfortunately I regularly hear of this happening, even from professionals such as speech therapists or special ed teachers, who I think should know better by now. The fact is that you do not need to be able to use low tech AAC before learning to use high tech AAC. Learning to use an AAC system (whether low or high tech) is a bit like learning a new language, so if you think a person would benefit long term from using an AAC app, then start working on that straight away, rather than first learning ‘another language’. To say “learn PECS first, then maybe ‘advance’ onto using high tech AAC” is wrong. There is no progression hierarchy from low tech to high, so why waste time on learning a less useful system first?
What is so great about AAC apps?:
- Using an AAC app, you can say anything to anyone, almost anywhere – The apps come with a very rich and varied vocabulary, and it’s easy to add more words or phrases too (accompanied by symbols included in the apps or using own pictures). Robust apps also come with a keyboard feature, so that you can write absolutely any word you’d like to say (provided you’re able to write). The apps ‘speak’ the words for you, so anyone who can hear and understand spoken language can easily understand what you’re saying. This is different from some other forms of AAC, such as signing, which relies on the person you are trying to talk to also understanding signing. Another useful aspect is that the iPad (or other device used) has it’s own light, so AAC apps can be used in the dark too, just like a spoken voice can, unlike most low tech AAC.
- AAC apps are (relatively) fast and flexible – The menus in modern AAC apps make it quick and easy (for the most part) to find the words or phrases that you wish to use. If you make a mistake, you can edit your message almost as easily as when writing text on a computer. It’s also possible to store any phrases you use on a regular basis, so that you don’t need to compose them again each time, but have them readily available at the push of a button (or two). You can also have pre-programmed phrases for situations where time is of the essence, for example ones relating to health-care or disability-specific needs.
- AAC apps enable independent communication – While some forms of AAC rely on a ‘communication partner’ (such as for example a person holding a letter board, if using ‘facilitated communication’ or similar AAC methods), the app can be independently used.
- AAC apps are readily available and not *that* expensive – The most expensive part of this form of AAC is the iPad (or other device). The apps themselves cost a fair bit too, but some of them are available as monthly subscriptions for around £10 per month, which I think is very reasonable for what they are. If a monthly subscription isn’t available for the app you would like, I recommend keeping an eye out for the AAC sales that usually take place twice a year, in early April and early October. Either way, getting an AAC app and an iPad is a lot less expensive that getting the equivalent systems on a designated AAC device. And if you already have an iPad, you can get started today! Some of the apps offer 30 or 60 days for free as well, so you can try them out without cost.
- AAC apps give immediate auditory feedback – For many users, hearing the word or sentence can be a positive, as it gives them confirmation that they’re actually saying what they’ve intended to (unlike for example handing over a picture card, where you might make a mistake and not realise straight away). Also, for a non-speaking child, hearing the words might help them develop some speech, as those words are consistently pronounced the same way each time, and they are in control themselves of pressing to hear the words said as often as they wish. And they can choose the words which are of greatest interest to themselves, too. I should also add that using ANY kind of AAC is generally helpful for language development, and is likely to encourage speech rather than slow it down, as some might think.
- High tech is fun and motivating for most people (and pretty cool as well) – Motivation is an important key to all kinds of learning, and the fact that most of us find iPads enjoyable to use is another positive for AAC apps. I would also say that using an app to communicate – whether using text to speech or a symbol-based vocabulary – has an element of ‘cool’ to it, and is more handy in most situations than many low tech options (compare for example to PECS or other systems using printed pictures, which take up a lot of space if you wish to carry a full vocabulary around with you).
Having said all this, I want to add that low tech AAC has some positives too. The main thing being that technology needs recharging, and it can go wrong. Users of high tech AAC usually have some kind of low tech available as back-up, such as laminated printouts of some of the pages from their AAC app, so that they’ll still be able to communicate basic things while their tech device isn’t available.
Don’t just take my word for it!
Who am I to tell you about AAC apps and why you should consider them for the non-speaking or not reliably speaking person in your life? I’m ‘just’ a mum who has spent a lot of time learning about AAC because of my son being non-speaking. But the points I’ve been making in this post are ones that I often also see highlighted online by AAC professionals (mainly speech and language therapists with a passion for AAC), so you don’t need to take my word for it all! Here are a few posts and articles by AAC pro’s, to underline and expand on what I’ve been saying above:
Next up, here’s a short post about High-Tech AAC in general, by an SLP, also debunking some of the common ‘myths’/misconceptions. For more myth busters, each of them backed up with links to research, see this page on the Tobii Dynavox website: What is AAC? – Busting AAC Myths
Also, check out this very well-written article by Jane Farrall: Why Are You Using Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)?
This facebook post links to one of MANY super informative episodes of the ‘Talking with Tech’ AAC podcast:
To round off, a few words about our ‘AAC journey’, so far:
We started off with PECS many years ago, and our son got the basics of it straight away, but didn’t really get past requesting food and other favourite items, plus some very basic commenting, such as telling me what colour something was. We also tried a mid tech option, in the form of a ‘GoTalk’ device with twelve buttons, which could be programmed to speak different words/messages. I found both the PECS and the GoTalk to be quite uninspiring methods of communication, and the GoTalk in particular was very restrictive. I’d go as far as saying that these methods, and the GoTalk in particular, actually were a turn-off communication wise for my son, rather than encouraging him to communicate more.
Our high tech AAC ‘journey’ in the form of apps on iPad has been quite slow an not totally straight forward. We tried two other apps before landing on using the ‘SuperCore50’ vocabulary setup in Grid for iPad by Smartbox. When we first started, we were living in Sweden and my son was going to school there. They had no experience of high tech AAC at his school, and didn’t like the idea of a pupil using an iPad in the classroom. We had very little support in how to get going with using AAC, and didn’t really know anything about central concepts such as modelling, motor-planning, or core words. It’s only really in the last year or so that I’ve started to feel more confident about what we’re doing and how. And I am still learning. Which is my point here, that I’m trying to get to: There are lots of people out there to learn from! If you can get hold of a speech and language therapist with good knowledge of robust AAC, that’s the way to go. Occupational therapists may also be able to help, at least with some aspects. But if you don’t have access to great professional help, it is totally possible to go for it on your own, while using online resources to educate yourself (again, referring back to my post from last year: AAC: Basic Facts And Helpful Resources). I feel quite strongly about spreading better knowledge about AAC, as I believe my son’s communication development could have been greatly helped if we’d figured out more suitable AAC for him at an earlier age. We are where we are, and I’m happy for what we now have. But I wish to encourage and empower parents with younger children to not sit and wait, not take the ‘scenic route’ via less robust AAC options (such as PECS), and to not feel intimidated by either technology or professionals. Presume competence, and go for it! There is very little to lose and potentially so much to gain!
Thank you so much for reading! If you have any comments, reflections or questions after reading this post, please let us know below! Maybe there are some relevant pros or cons that you think I’ve left out, our perhaps you have some experience of AAC to share with us? I really appreciate hearing from our readers and usually respond to all comments. We can also be found on instagram, facebook, twitter and pinterest – just look for Sensational Learning With Penguin and you’ll find us there (or go via the social media icons elsewhere on this page) x
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