Communication Services Area:
Augmentative Alternative Communication (AAC)
An AAC Specialist is an SLP who has pursued additional expertise in systems that provide communication options beyond a reliance on conventional means of expression. Like languages, those AAC systems associate forms (such as captioned picture cells) with meanings (such as needs, wants, and other thoughts and feelings). Those form-meaning links are symbols, which the AAC user will access to express their intended meanings.
The actual picture is of course much bigger than this summary, such as words forming compound and complex structures, communication growing into language, balance with a person’s existing speech skills, iconic versus symbolic systems, and so on. A thorough explanation exists across several books, and we are only skimming the surface.
Without regard to their technology, AAC systems should be designed, programmed, trained, and monitored by an AAC Specialist. This is important, because AAC decisions are not risk free, and inaccurate AAC choices are not harmless for the user. But that management is not intended to be entirely exclusive, because it is also important for a person’s communication partners to participate in the living system, crucially informing the content of the user's comm system. The AAC Specialist can also provide training and other supports for partner involvement in performing some of the programming.
Lane ESD’s AAC Specialist has developed a set of AAC training videos.
“What communication are we augmenting or alternating?”
- Speech dominates human language, so speaking is still treated as the most conventional natural modality for expressive communication (among available modalities).
- Speech is produced intelligibly when a speaker’s sounds pair well with their meanings.
- Intelligible speech, then, represents the default performance standard.
- Any alternative communication system that replaces this standard is AAC.
- Any augmentation that supplements such an alternative system is also AAC.
- AAC is unaided if it is integral with the body, as in signed gestures or facial expression.
- All other AAC is aided.
- Aided systems range from low-tech (e.g., paper-based picture communication boards) to high-tech (e.g., programmable, dynamic display, touch/switch-accessible voice-output devices).
- AAC is more iconic when a form (such as a toy bus) is chosen when making a symbol because it is similar to its paired meaning (an actual bus).
- In comparison, AAC is more symbolic when a meaning (such as “stop”) is paired with an arbitrary form (e.g., the written word “stop,” or a stop sign, and so on).
The more aided, symbolic, or higher-tech the system, the more likely that it will need to be provided specifically through AAC services.
An AAC user’s speech remains a valuable part of their communication.
“Which students need AAC?”
ASHA concludes that there are no “prerequisite skills” for the introduction of AAC specifically because cognitive challenges are no reason to withhold AAC. (See ASHA’s discussion of Myth #3.) That is certainly true; for example, while all of our Life Skills students face severe-to-profound cognitive challenges, none of them are denied communication supports, which can include a wide variety of technologies.
Just to be clear, it is equally true that the reliability of communication skills should inform decisions around the nature of the supports to introduce. We balance rich opportunities for growth (or stretch) against such risks as frustration and rejection (or strain). While “whelmed” can be good, “overwhelmed” is bad.
To that end, the classroom SLP often works with a student on the reliability of joint attention, picture matching, clear selection of choices, and other fundamental communication skills. The SLP scaffolds these activities with Assistive Communication materials (e.g., voice-output devices, choice boards, and the like). The SLP maintains some informal consultation with an AAC specialist about the scope and sequence of this growth plan. If a student is already reliably skilled in these fundamentals, then this early assessment phase does not take very long.
While this process does not require the direct involvement of an AAC specialist, the supporting therapist should have an appreciation of the balance between two types of systems (whether unaided or aided), namely:
- a training system that develops the skills that will be used for AAC later, and
- an AAC system that relies on those developed skills for AAC now.
While a given system can contain both elements, it remains crucial to consider this distinction; for example, is the system training the student to value joint attention, or does it already rely on the student’s joint attention skills while teaching them to actually communicate through using the system?
This approach is consistent with the today and tomorrow principle presented by Beukelmen and Mirenda (2013, p. 192):
The “today” decisions should aim to meet the person’s immediate communication needs and match the existing capabilities and constraints identified during the assessment process. The “tomorrow” decisions are based on projections of future opportunities, needs, and constraints, as well as capabilities that are likely to result from instruction and practice. Both decisions are critical to the long-term success of the intervention plan.
This applies to diachronic decisions made across any supportive communication systems, whether or not the student is already receiving formal AAC services.
For example, as part of the collaboration with the classroom SLP, the AAC specialist can supply materials for gathering information about the student’s skills with increasingly aided, symbolic, or technical systems.
“Who is on the AAC Team?”
A team approach is necessary for every student to promote generalization. In the early stages, the classroom SLP might lead a team of the student’s partners. If a student is being evaluated, or has qualified, for formal AAC services, then the AAC Specialist will lead the associated team. That membership varies according to need, and might include anyone on the IEP team, plus any other communication partners, such as extended family members, IAs, and therapists outside of school.
“Who Provides AT and AAC?”
At base, AAC is provided by a student’s home district for Bethel, Eugene, and Springfield; otherwise, Lane ESD is the provider. This is true whether or not the student attends a Life Skills classroom. That said, sometimes these districts arrange for Lane ESD to provide AAC for some of these students.
Lane ESD provides AT in their Life Skills classrooms; otherwise, it is provided by the classroom’s host district. A host district can arrange for Lane ESD to provide AT outside of Lane ESD’s Life Skills classrooms.
Note that other specialists provide some services that overlap AT in the Lane ESD Life Skills classrooms.
This is what it looks like:
|Lane ESD Life Skills||Not Lane ESD Life Skills|
|AAC||Bethel or Springfield (otherwise Lane ESD)|
|AT||Lane ESD (some non-LESD specialists provide services that overlap AT)||Host District (can arrange for LESD to be the provider)|