Augmentative and Alternative Communication

AAC Populations

Individuals who use AAC have severe expressive communication disorders that are characterized by impairments in speech, language, reading, and writing. The list of populations below includes those who may have a temporary or permanent need for AAC to augment or replace other more traditional means of communication. It is not intended to be an exhaustive list of individuals who may benefit from AAC intervention.

AAC users fall into two broad categories—those with congenital disabilities and those with acquired disabilities.

Congenital disabilities include

  • autism spectrum disorder (ASD);
  • cerebral palsy;
  • developmental disabilities;
  • intellectual disability;
  • developmental apraxia of speech; and
  • genetic disorders.

Individuals with congenital disabilities are acquiring language while using AAC strategies. For this population, AAC not only represents existing language but also is a tool to aid in expressive and receptive language acquisition and literacy development.

Acquired disabilities include

  • cerebrovascular accidents;
  • traumatic or acquired brain injuries;
  • neurodegenerative diseases (e.g., amyotrophic lateral sclerosis [ALS], supranuclear palsy, primary progressive aphasia, and apraxia);
  • disability following surgeries (e.g., glossectomy, laryngectomy); and
  • temporary conditions (e.g., intubation) for patients in critical care settings.

AAC needs for individuals with acquired disabilities will vary and may change over time, depending on the intactness of their language and cognition at the time of injury as well as on disease onset and progression.

AAC Systems

An AAC system is an integrated group of components used to enhance communication. These components include forms of AAC (aided or unaided), symbols, selection techniques, and strategies.

The design of an AAC system incorporates each individual's strengths and needs. It incorporates the individual's full communication abilities and may include existing speech, vocalizations, gestures, languages spoken, and/or some form of external system (e.g., SGD).

An individual may use multiple modalities or many systems of AAC in combination, allowing for change based on context, audience, and communicative intent. A well-designed AAC system is flexible and adaptable. It allows for changes to vocabulary and mode of access as the individual's language and physical needs change over time. A well-designed system also maximizes the individual's abilities to communicate effectively and efficiently across environments and with a variety of communication partners (Beukelman & Mirenda, 2013).

Forms (Unaided or Aided)

AAC is typically divided into two broad categories—unaided and aided.

Unaided forms of AAC do not require an external tool. Unaided forms require some degree of motor control.

Aided forms of AAC require some form of external support—either electronic or nonelectronic. Nonelectronic aided forms are often referred to as "light-tech" or "low-tech." Electronic forms are referred to as "high-tech." Examples are listed in the table below.

Forms of AAC
Unaided Aided
No-tech Low-/Light-Tech High-Tech
  • Gestures
  • Manual signs
  • Facial expressions
  • Vocalizations
  • Verbalizations
  • Body language
  • Pictures
  • Objects
  • Photographs
  • Writing
  • Communication boards/books
  • Speech generating devices (SGD)*
  • Single-message devices and recordable/digitized devices
  • AAC software that enables dynamic symbol/language representation and that is used with some form of technology hardware (e.g., computer, tablet, smartphone)

An individual may use aided forms of AAC, unaided forms of AAC, or both. Whether a person uses aided or unaided forms is determined by his or her needs and abilities and the communication context.

*SGDs can be set to use a voice that is appropriate to the user's age and gender and that appropriately reflects race/ethnicity and user preference. These devices use synthesized speech output, digitized speech output, or both.

  • Synthesized speech consists of electronically produced speech. Phonemes and allophones of the target language are used to generate digital speech signals that are transformed into intelligible speech. Newer technology uses parameters and vocal characteristics of the speaker's former or residual speech. Through voice banking, an individual can record a large inventory of speech, which is then used to create a synthetic voice that approximates his or her natural voice (Costello, 2011, 2016). See Steve Gleason's Synthetic Voice for an example.
  • Digitized speech (also called "waveform coding") consists of natural speech that has been recorded, stored, and reproduced. Nonspeech sounds, such as laughter or the sound of a car horn, can also be recorded. Through message banking, an individual can use his or her own voice or a proxy voice to digitally record and store words, phrases, sentences, and sounds using natural voice, inflection, and intonation. Those messages are then stored on, and reproduced by, the AAC device (Costello, 2011, 2016).
Comparison of Synthesized and Digitized Speech Output
Synthesized Digitized
  • Less natural-sounding speech
  • Requires less memory storage than digitized speech
  • Allows for generation of speech in multiple languages
  • Allows for novel message generation via text to speech
  • More closely resembles natural speech
  • Requires more memory storage than synthesized speech
  • Allows for recording of messages in a given language or dialect and in the individual's own voice
  • Number of possible utterances is limited to recorded items

Other augmentative supports include voice amplifiers and artificial phonation devices (e.g., electrolarynx devices, intraoral devices, and speech valves for individuals with tracheostomies or ventilators), vibratory systems, Morse code, and braille.

Within the population of those who are deaf and hard of hearing, many individuals use hearing aids and hearing assistive technology systems (e.g., personal amplification devices and text telephones [Telecommunications Device for the Deaf (TDD) or Teletype (TTY)]) that aid in communication with hearing individuals who are not able to communicate via sign language or choose not. These devices are considered to be assistive technology but do not fall under AAC, because they do not require skilled speech-language pathologist (SLP) intervention prior to use. (For information about hearing assistive technologies, see ASHA's Practice Portal pages on hearing loss – beyond early childhood and hearing aids for adults.)

Symbols

Symbols are used in AAC to represent objects, actions, concepts, and emotions. They can include drawings, photographs, objects, facial expressions, gestures, auditory symbols (e.g., spoken words), or orthography (i.e., alphabet-based symbols).

Iconicity refers to the association made between a symbol and its referent (Schlosser, 2003). Iconicity varies along a continuum, based on how easily the meaning of the symbol can be guessed.

  • Transparent symbols are at one end of the iconicity continuum and are readily guessable in the absence of the referent.
  • Opaque symbols are at the other end of the continuum and are not readily guessable, even when the meaning of the symbol is known.
  • Translucent symbols lie between the two extremes of the continuum. The meaning of the referent may not be obvious, but the relationship between symbol and referent is more obvious when additional information is provided (Fuller & Lloyd, 1991).

Iconicity directly affects the communicator's efficiency and effectiveness, especially with regard to untrained or unfamiliar communication partners. High iconicity (i.e., displaying the symbol along with the written word) can help communication partners learn and interpret symbols, particularly if no voice output is available (Wilkinson & McIlvane, 2002).

There are three common ways that symbols are used to represent language; these are known as language representation methods (LRMs). A person who uses AAC may use a single LRM or a combination of LRMs, depending on preference and the functionality of the system. The following three LRMs are commonly used in AAC systems:

  • Alphabet-based methods use traditional orthography (spelling) and rate enhancement techniques such as word or phrase prediction.
  • Single-meaning messages use graphic symbols (e.g., photographs, drawings), each of which represents one word or message (e.g., touching the picture of the toilet indicates one's need to go to the bathroom).
  • Semantic compaction (Minspeak ®) is based on the concept of multiple-meaning iconic encoding; it combines picture symbols (icons) in various prescribed sequences to form words or phrases. Because a single icon can be associated with multiple meanings, a relatively small set of icons can be used to create many words and phrases. For example, frog can refer to the following concepts: "frog," "green," "jump," and "water." Pairing frog with different symbols can communicate these various concepts—Frog + Rainbow = Green; Frog + Arrow = Jump; Frog + Cup = Pond (Glennen, 1997).

Symbols are a dynamic part of AAC intervention. A person's spoken vocabulary will change based on his or her age, communication partner, language development, environment, mood, and context. The symbols used in an AAC system should allow for the same change and flexibility. Symbols are not universal across cultures. It is important to find symbols that are relevant to the individual and his or her community.

Symbol selection is also based on the person's ability to access, recognize, and learn that symbol's meaning. For example, a person with visual deficits will need a symbol that is modified to be viewable or that is accessible via other sensory modes such as listening or touch.

Symbol Display

Symbol organization on an AAC system affects the individual's ability to communicate effectively and efficiently. It plays a role in language learning and development, and it needs to be customized and modified throughout the user's time with the AAC system (Beukelman & Mirenda, 2013).

The way in which symbols are presented on an AAC system is referred to as the display. Different encoding options (e.g., alphanumeric, numeric, iconic, alphabetic, and color) are sometimes used to organize displays. Displays can be static (fixed), dynamic (changes based on user actions), or hybrid (a combination of static and dynamic).

Display Types
Static/Fixed Dynamic Hybrid
  • Symbols remain in a fixed location.
  • Most common in communication board or low-tech SGDs.
  • There is a finite number of symbols/messages.
  • User may have multiple fixed displays (e.g., multiple pages in a communication book).
  • Electronic—selection of one symbol automatically activates change in symbol set.
  • Often arranged by large category first, then broken down to more specific vocabulary items.
  • With use of multiple-meaning icons, selection of one icon may prompt display of other related icons.
  • Static/fixed display with dynamic component (e.g., alphabet board or keyboard with word prediction; grid display that opens new page following user selection of a symbol).

A visual scene is a view of an environment consisting of drawings, photographs, and/or virtual environments organized in a meaningful way. Visual scenes can be used to represent situations, routines, places, or experiences. They can be presented via fixed or dynamic displays (Beukelman & Mirenda, 2013). Elements within the visual scene function as hotspots that trigger message output when selected.

For beginning communicators (e.g., young children or older individuals who are at early functioning communication stages), visual scenes may be easier to learn and use than grid displays. (For more details about visual scene displays and an example, see Tuthill, 2014.)

Symbol Display Organization

Most AAC systems, with the exception of visual scenes, are presented in a grid format. The organization of vocabulary, symbol size, and number of symbols on the grid is individualized and determined by the type of display, the type of symbol, and the visual acuity, communication and cognitive skills, integrated sensory system, and motor control of the individual.

Semantic–syntactic displays organize vocabulary based on parts of speech and syntactic framework. Symbols are laid out according to spoken word order and print orientation, and they vary depending on the language used (e.g., left-to-right or right-to-left). Semantic–syntactic displays are useful for adults with relatively intact language (e.g., individuals with ALS) or language learners, and they can facilitate efficient production of grammatically complex messages.

Taxonomic displays group symbols according to semantic category (e.g., people, places, feelings, actions). Typically developing children begin to find this type of grouping helpful at around age 6–7 years, so this strategy may not be appropriate for individuals with complex communication needs who are developmentally younger than 6 years of age (Buekelman & Mirenda, 2013). Use of taxonomic displays for persons with aphasia can add to the cognitive and linguistic load and may lead to increased errors and slower response time (Petroi, Koul, & Corwin, 2011).

Activity grid displays (also known as "schematic grid layouts") organize vocabulary by event schemes, routines, or activities. Each page or display includes activity-specific vocabulary and may be further organized by part of speech (e.g., nouns, verbs). Activity grid displays can increase participation and syntactic development by encouraging use of multiword combinations (Drager, Light, Speltz, Fallon, & Jeffries, 2003). Users may be able to navigate independently from one activity display to another, or they may rely on a facilitator or communication partner to provide the appropriate activity display for a given situation. Context-based displays are similar to activity grid displays but are designed for a particular (usually frequent) context or environment, allowing for greater generalization than vocabulary designed around a single, specific activity.

Vocabulary Selection

Selection of appropriate vocabulary is a key consideration and can lead to greater intervention success and decreased likelihood of abandonment of the AAC system. The SLP considers the personal preferences and needs of the individual for communicating with family members and other communication partners (e.g., in social contexts, academic settings, medical settings, vocational settings, etc.) and makes all efforts to use vocabulary that is specific to the individual and consistent with his or her language, age, culture, and personal preference. Nouns tend to dominate vocabulary sets for AAC users (Dark & Balandin, 2007); however, the inclusion of verbs and other parts of speech can increase AAC acceptance and use (Adamson, Romski, Deffebach, & Sevcik, 1992).

Vocabulary is often divided into two categories: core and fringe (or "extended"). Core vocabulary consists of high-frequency words that make up about 80% of the words used by most people every day. Core vocabulary contains mostly pronouns, verbs, descriptors, and question words (Witkowski & Baker, 2012). English language learners use a comparable amount of core vocabulary as do native English speakers (Boenisch & Soto, 2015). Fringe vocabulary consists of lower-frequency words – mostly nouns – which tend to be context specific. Combining core and fringe vocabulary can increase the frequency of AAC use (Buekelman, McGinnis, & Morrow, 1991; Yorkston, Dowden, Hosinger, Marriner, & Smith, 1988).

Selection Techniques

Selection techniques are the ways in which messages or symbols are accessed by the AAC user. There are two main selection techniques —direct selection and indirect selection (scanning).

Direct selection—The AAC user selects the desired symbol directly from a selection set. Direct selection can be

  • electronic or nonelectronic;
  • done with direct physical touch (e.g., body part or other object); or
  • done with generated activation (e.g., via joystick, eye gaze, trackball, traditional or head mouse, brain–computer interface technology, light indicator).

Indirect selection (scanning)—Each item from a selection set is presented sequentially until the desired item appears and is selected by using a previously agreed upon motor movement or vocalization or by using a switch. 

  • Presentation of items in the selection set can be auditory, tactile, or visual.
  • Items are presented in a row, column, or quadrant.
  • Partner-assisted scanning is an indirect selection technique in which the communication partner presents messages or letter choices in a sequential fashion (visually or auditorily) to the individual, and the individual then makes his or her selection using a previously agreed upon motor act (blinking, grunting, raising a hand, etc.). Partner-assisted scanning
    • is used with individuals who have severe motor, visual, and/or communication impairments;
    • may be used with individuals who do not yet have established means of alternative access;
    • may be used as an alternative when primary system is unavailable or not functioning.
Comparing Direct and Indirect Selection Techniques
Direct Selection Indirect Selection
  • More efficient
  • Less load on working memory of user and listener
  • Can be used with high-tech or low-tech systems
  • Requires more precise and accurate motor movements
  • One-to-one relationship between the motor act and message generation
  • Requires greater visual or auditory acuity
  • Less efficient
  • Greater demand on listener's and user's working memory
  • Can be used with high-tech or low-tech systems
  • Requires less fine-motor control
  • Requires intermediary steps between motor act and message generation
  • Can be used by individuals with significant visual or auditory deficits

Strategies

A strategy is a process or plan of action used to improve (e.g., accelerate) performance. An individual's use of AAC can be enhanced by the application of strategies that include topic setting, letter and word prediction, location of vocabulary for efficient access, and one-shot message communication aids that allow for the  message to be changed for different activities as needed.

Communicative Competence

Communicative competence is an individual's ability to freely express ideas, thoughts, and feelings to a variety of listeners across contexts. It provides the means to achieve personal, educational, vocational, and social goals (Calculator, 2009; Lund & Light, 2007; Light & McNaughton, 2014). Individuals must achieve communicative competence whether they use natural speech or AAC, but their paths may vary (Light, Beukelman, & Reichle, 2003).

Communicative competence for AAC users consists of the following five individual competencies (Light et al., 2003).

  • Linguistic competence includes knowledge of and ability to use the language(s) spoken and written in the individual's family and community (see Language in Brief) as well as knowledge of and ability to use the linguistic code (symbols, syntax, grammar) of the AAC system.
  • Operational competence requires skill in the technical operation of AAC systems and techniques, including
    • having the motor movements needed for unaided approaches;
    • using selection techniques for aided approaches;
    • navigating in and between systems;
    • turning the electronic device on and off and charging it; and
    • operating electronic equipment and/or navigating pages in a low-tech system.
  • Strategic competence is the ability to use available features to convey messages efficiently and effectively, including
    • asking for choices due to vocabulary limitations;
    • using word/phrase prediction to enhance efficiency;
    • using an introductory (pre-recorded) statement to explain AAC to unfamiliar communication partners; and
    • asking one's communication partner to write or type messages to aid in understanding and to repair communication breakdowns
  • Social competence is knowing  what, where, with whom, when and when not to, and in what manner to communicate (Hymes, 1972). Skills include
    • pragmatics (e.g., turn-taking; initiating and terminating communication; topic maintenance; code-switching);
    • requesting attention;
    • requesting or providing information; and
    • sociorelational skills (e.g., active participation, demonstrating interest, projecting a positive self-image).
  • Psychosocial competence is the ability to effectively handle the demands and challenges of everyday life, maintain a state of mental well-being, and demonstrate adaptive and positive behavior when interacting with others (World Health Organization [WHO], 1997). Psychosocial competence for AAC users includes
    • being motivated to communicate;
    • having a positive attitude toward use of AAC;
    • having confidence in one's ability to communicate effectively in a given situation; and
    • being resilient—persisting in the face of communication failures.

AAC Myths and Realities

There are many common myths that can potentially affect an individual's or family member's willingness and motivation to use AAC. However, available research does not support these myths (Romski & Sevcik, 2005).

Myth 1: Introducing AAC will reduce an individual's motivation to improve natural speech and will hinder language development (including the development of social communication skills). AAC should be introduced only after the ability to use natural speech has been completely ruled out.

Research Findings

  • The use of AAC does not affect motivation to use natural speech and can, in fact, help improve natural speech when therapy focuses simultaneously on natural speech development and use of AAC in a multimodal approach (Millar, Light, & Schlosser, 2006; Sedey, Rosin, & Miller, 1991).
  • Intervention for minimally verbal school-age children with ASD that included use of an SGD increased spontaneous output and use of novel utterances compared with the same interventions that did not include use of an SGD (Kasari et al., 2014).
  • AAC can help decrease the frequency of challenging behaviors that may arise from frustration or communication breakdowns (Carr & Durand, 1985; Drager, Light, & McNaughton, 2010; Mirenda, 1997; Robinson & Owens, 1995).

Myth 2: Young children are not ready for AAC and will not require AAC until they reach school age.

Research Findings

  • Early implementation of AAC can aid in the development of natural speech and language (Lüke, 2014; Romski et al., 2010; Wright, Kaiser, Reikowsky, & Roberts, 2013) and can increase vocabulary for children ages 3 years and younger (Romski, Sevcik, Barton-Hulsey, & Whitmore, 2015).
  • AAC use with preschool-age children has been associated with increased use of multisymbol utterances and development of grammar (Binger & Light, 2007; L. Harris, Doyle, & Haff, 1996; see Romski et al. [2015] for a review).
  • AAC use can lead to increases in receptive vocabulary in young children (Brady, 2000; Drager et al., 2006).

Myth 3: Prerequisite skills such as understanding of cause and effect and showing communicative intent must be demonstrated before AAC should be considered; individuals with cognitive deficits are not able to learn to use AAC.

Research Findings

  • Measures of pre-communicative cognitive ability may be invalid for some populations, and research suggests that impaired cognition does not preclude communication (Kangas & Lloyd, 1988; Zangari & Kangas, 1997). Development of language skills can lead to functional cognitive gains (Goossens', 1989).
  • AAC intervention for children with complex communication needs helps develop functional communication skills, promotes cognitive development, provides a foundation for literacy development, and improves social communication (Drager et al., 2010).

Incidence and Prevalence

It is difficult to estimate the prevalence of AAC users due to wide variability across this population in terms of diagnosis, age, location, communication modality, and extent of AAC use. However, it is commonly accepted that the number of AAC users is growing, most likely as a result of increases in access to technology and AAC awareness and increases in the number of individuals with complex communication needs (Light & McNaughton, 2012; Ratcliff, Koul, & Lloyd, 2008).

  • Beukelman and Mirenda (2013) estimated that approximately 1.3% of people (or roughly 4 million Americans) are unable to reliably communicate using natural speech to accomplish daily communication needs.
  • Enderby, Judge, Creer, and John (2013) estimated that 0.5% of the U.K. population requires the use of AAC. Based on the prevalence of conditions associated with use of AAC (in the United Kingdom), Enderby et al. (2013) estimated that the largest populations of individuals who could benefit from AAC had diagnoses of dementia (23.2%), Parkinson's disease (22.7%), ASD (18.9%), learning disabilities (13.3%), and stroke (9.9%).
  • According to the National Survey of Children With Special Health Care Needs (2005–2006), the estimated prevalence of children with special health care needs who have a speech difficulty is 2.9% among all U.S. children. Of these children, 7.6% were estimated to require a communication aid or device; however, an estimated 2% did not receive one (Kenney & Kogan, 2011).
  • Binger and Light (2006) reported that approximately 12% of preschoolers who were enrolled in special education services in Pennsylvania required AAC, and the authors cautioned that this was almost certainly an underestimate. The majority of children in this study had a primary diagnosis of developmental delay, autism, or pervasive developmental disorder (PDD). It was reported that students used a variety of different types of AAC systems (often, more than one), including gestures (62%), sign language (35%), objects (31%), pictures (63%), and high-tech devices or SGDs (15%).

Roles and Responsibilities

SLPs play a central role in the screening, assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of persons requiring AAC intervention. The professional roles and activities in speech-language pathology include clinical/educational services (diagnosis, assessment, planning, and treatment), advocacy, education, administration, and research.

Appropriate roles for SLPs include the following:

  • Provide training for medical and allied health professionals, educators, and family members about AAC use and the impact of AAC on quality of life
  • Educate other professionals and caregivers on the needs of persons using AAC and the role of SLPs in meeting the needs of individuals who use AAC
  • Serve as a liaison between the family and the SGD provider
  • Screen individuals who may benefit from AAC intervention
  • Determine the need for further assessment and/or referral for other services
  • Conduct a comprehensive, transdisciplinary, culturally and linguistically appropriate assessment related to provision of AAC services
  • Refer to other professionals (rehabilitation engineer, assistive technology professional, occupational therapist, physical therapist, music therapist, vision specialist) to facilitate access to comprehensive services, reduce barriers, and maximize opportunities for successful AAC use
  • Involve individuals and family members in decision making to the greatest extent possible throughout the assessment and intervention process
  • Develop and implement intervention plans that are culturally and linguistically appropriate to maximize effective communication between individuals who use AAC and their communication partners across the lifespan
  • Document progress, determine appropriate AAC modifications, and determine dismissal and follow-up criteria, if indicated
  • Generate reports to help with funding and collaborate with funding agencies
  • Counsel persons who use AAC and their families/caregivers regarding communication-related issues and provide education aimed at preventing abandonment and other complications relating to AAC use
  • Serve as an integral member of an interdisciplinary team working with individuals who use AAC and their families/caregivers
  • Participate in individualized education program (IEP) meetings
  • Ensure that AAC goals and AAC use are included in a student's IEP
  • Remain informed of research in the area of AAC, and help advance the knowledge base related to the nature of AAC assessment and intervention
  • Use evidence-based practice to evaluate functional outcomes of AAC intervention
  • Know about funding sources and the requirements for applying for funding from each source
  • Advocate for individuals and their families/caregivers at the local, state, and national levels, particularly with regard to funding, education, and acceptance of AAC use.

As indicated in the ASHA Code of Ethics, SLPs shall engage in only those aspects of the profession that are within the scope of their professional practice and competence, considering their level of education, training, and experience.

Assessment

See the Assessment section of the Augmentative and Alternative Communication evidence map for pertinent scientific evidence, expert opinion, and client/caregiver perspectives.

The goal of an AAC assessment is to elicit valid and representative behaviors that accurately demonstrate the AAC user's communication potential. AAC assessment is an ongoing process; ongoing evaluation and decision making are required, even after an AAC system has been selected. Elements of dynamic assessment and other informal assessments are used to supplement standardized assessment data. See assessment tools, techniques, and data sources for a description of testing and data collection options.  

Exposing individuals to symbols and systems prior to assessment may ensure more accurate assessment results. This can be accomplished by providing core vocabulary supports in the home and classroom and by introducing visually represented language using a variety of communication display forms and sizes prior to the formal assessment process.

Assessment takes into consideration the needs of the individual, which may include one or more of the following:

  • Augmentative means of communication to facilitate natural speech
  • Alternative means of communication to replace natural speech or writing
  • Temporary or permanent need for AAC
  • Means of communication to facilitate more appropriate alternate behaviors

A video clip from ASHA's Case Study, "An Overview of the AAC Assessment Process," in which Patricia Ourand describes the goals of AAC assessment.


Primary, secondary, and tertiary components of the AAC system are also considered during assessment.

  • Primary components are those that perform the functions of natural language and have the greatest impact on communication performance (e.g., symbols, vocabulary, methods of utterance generation).
  • Secondary components relate to the way the individual uses and interacts with the system (e.g., user interface, selection method and output).
  • Tertiary components are often external to the system itself but affect long-term use and ongoing success with the system (e.g., switches, portability, mounts, training and support; Hill & Corsi, 2012).

SLPs also consider perspectives of family members and caregivers because these individuals often are able to report consistent behaviors and current means of communication beyond what the SLP may see during the assessment session. Lack of family involvement in the AAC process is cited as a significant factor leading to device abandonment; therefore, incorporating family members into the AAC process is crucial (Bailey, Parette, Stoner, Angell, & Carroll, 2006).

The assessment is conducted in the language preferred by the AAC user and takes into account unique characteristics, linguistic background, and cultural variables that affect communication style and use. Interpretation services may be needed (see Collaborating with Interpreters, Transliterators, and Translators).

If the individual (and/or communication partner) wears hearing aids or prescription eyeglasses, these should be worn during the assessment. Hearing aids should be inspected prior to the assessment to ensure that they are in working order.

Environmental modifications are made to accommodate vision or hearing deficits and any other physical difficulties. These modifications may include special lighting, physical positioning of the individual relative to his or her communication partner; volume of the SGD if the communication partner has a hearing impairment; additional personal amplification if needed; and modifications of physical space to accommodate wheelchairs or other specialty seats.

Consistent with the WHO's International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF) framework (ASHA, 2016; WHO, 2014), a comprehensive assessment of individuals with AAC needs is conducted to identify and describe

  • impairments inbody structure and function, including underlying strengths and weaknesses in speech sound production and verbal/nonverbal communication;
  • co-morbid deficits, such as apraxia of speech, dysarthria, ASD, intellectual disability, and neurodegenerative disease;
  • the individual's limitations in activity and participation, including functional status in communication, interpersonal interactions, and learning potential;
  • contextual (environmental and personal) factors that serve as barriers to, or facilitators of, successful communication and life participation; and
  • the impact of communication impairments on quality of life and functional limitations relative to premorbid communication status (where applicable).

See Person-Centered Focus on Function: Augmentative and Alternative Communication for Adult with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) [PDF] and Person-Centered Focus on Function: Augmentative and Alternative Communication for Child with Cerebral Palsy [PDF] for examples of assessment data consistent with the ICF framework.

The following table lists the typical components of a comprehensive assessment for AAC. 

Comprehensive Assessment for AAC: Typical Components
Case history
  • Medical status and history, education, occupation, and cultural and linguistic backgrounds
  • History and current use of AAC systems, including motivation to use AAC
  • Prognosis and potential for disease progression, when applicable
Ecological inventory (Reichle, York, & Sigafoos, 1991)
  • Current communication skills and needs
  • Communication skills in relation to similarly matched peers
Self-report
  • Functional communication success
  • Communication difficulties and impact on individual and family/caregiver
  • Contexts of concern (e.g., social interactions, work activities)
  • Language(s) used in contexts of concern
  • Individual's goals and preferences
Sensory and motor status
  • Vision—ability to see symbols/orthography on AAC system
  • Physical/motor status—means of access
  • Integrated sensory system—ability to regulate and ready the body for communication
Hearing screening See Childhood Hearing Screening and Hearing Screening.
Speech sound assessment See the Assessment section of the following ASHA Practice Portal resources: Speech Sound Disorders: Articulation and Phonology; Childhood Apraxia of Speech; and Acquired Apraxia of Speech.
Spoken language assessment

Expressive and receptive skills, including

  • communicative intent;
  • current means of communication and their effectiveness (verbal and nonverbal);
  • vocabulary size and word types (used and understood);
  • word combinations and grammatical forms (used and understood);
  • ability to follow commands;
  • ability to respond to yes–no questions; and
  • ability to correctly point to objects, words, and pictures.

See the Assessment section of the following ASHA Practice Portal resources: Spoken Language Disorders; Late Language Emergence; and Aphasia.

Written language assessment (reading and writing)

Reading and writing skills (at appropriate level for individual)

  • emergent level
  • early elementary level
  • later elementary level and above
  • premorbid and current literacy level for adults with acquired communication impairments

See the Assessment section of Written Language Disorders.

Social communication assessment See the Assessment section of Social Communication Disorders in School-Age Children.
Cognitive communication assessment

Memory, attention, problem-solving, and executive skills in the context of functional AAC use

See Traumatic Brain Injury in Adults and Evaluating and Treating Communication and Cognitive Disorders.

Symbol assessment

Ability to use various symbol features to meet current and future communication needs (e.g., making requests, responding to questions, protesting, commenting, etc.), including

  • type of symbol (e.g., objects, pictures, letters, printed text);
  • symbol size;
  • field size (e.g., number of symbols in a display); and
  • organization of display.
Feature-matching assessment

Based on individual skills and needs, determine appropriate AAC system features, including

  • capability to allow a range of communication functions;
  • capacity for use in varying environments and with different partners;
  • type and number of symbols;
  • type of display and display features (e.g., color vs. black and white; static vs. dynamic; hybrid);
  • input type (direct vs. indirect selection);
  • output (type of speech, voice);
  • options for physical positioning and need for accessories (e.g., mounts or switches);
  • portability;
  • capability to be modified to allow for changes in communication abilities and needs;
  • ability to motivate use by individual; and
  • affordability and ease of maintenance.

See the Resources section of this document for sample feature-matching charts and checklists.

Identification of contextual facilitators and barriers
  • Facilitators (e.g., ability and willingness to use AAC systems; family support; motivation to communicate; technological knowledge/abilities of user and family)
  • Barriers (e.g., reduced confidence in communication; cognitive deficits; visual and motor impairments; lack of acceptance of disability and/or AAC use; limitations in capability of AAC system; seating and positioning limitations across environments)

Assessment Considerations

Accommodations for Individuals With Significant Disabilities

Many standardized assessments include items that require a verbal (e.g., picture naming) and/or motor (e.g., pointing) response. For individuals with significant disabilities (e.g., individuals who are nonverbal, have limited speech, or have significant motor limitations), it may be necessary to modify the task or the response mode.

Standardized scores cannot be used when assessments are modified because the tasks are fundamentally different (Barker, Saunders, & Brady, 2012). Assessment should include elements of dynamic assessment and other informal assessments (e.g., direct observation of language use in a variety of natural contexts) to supplement standardized assessment data.

See Ganz (2014) for a discussion of communication skills assessments and assessments to determine suitability of AAC for individuals with complex communication needs. See also the Assessment section of Written Language Disorders for a discussion of task modifications for assessing literacy skills in individuals who are nonverbal or have limited speech.

Participation Gap

When evaluating and planning for AAC intervention, the clinician considers the barriers that affect communication as well as the individual's communication abilities. For individuals with congenital disabilities, AAC intervention is considered whenever a gap exists between the communication abilities of the AAC user and those of his or her peers. For individuals with acquired disabilities, AAC intervention occurs when a gap is identified between pre- and post-injury abilities. See The Participation Model for Augmentative and Alternative Communication [PDF] (Beukelman & Mirenda, 2013).

Eligibility for Services

Use of AAC is considered as early as possible, regardless of etiology of the communication impairment. The goal of AAC intervention is to facilitate communication between the individual and his or her outside world. ASHA aligns with the National Joint Committee for the Communication Needs of Persons With Severe Disabilities (NJC) in support of a zero-exclusion policy for AAC services. See the Communication Bill of Rights ( Brady et al., 2016; NJC, 1992).

There are no prerequisites for AAC intervention, and a variety of strategies and techniques should be implemented in order to determine the most effective means of communication for the individual (Zangari & Kangas, 1997). All individuals are considered candidates for AAC intervention as long as there is a discrepancy between their communication abilities and their communication needs. It takes time to establish a means of communication via AAC, but the time and effort involved should not be a reason for exclusion from intervention.

Cultural Considerations

SLPs consider the attitudes, knowledge, and beliefs of the individual and his or her family members with regard to disability and the use of technology for communication. Cultural views can vary widely and may influence all areas of AAC service delivery, including the decision to use AAC, the choice of AAC hardware, and the selection of vocabulary and symbol systems.

Keep cultural variations in mind when assessing communication needs of the individual and the individual's family. A thorough assessment includes gathering information about lifestyle, the desire to communicate, and expectations with regard to AAC use. Ethnographic interviews can be used to supplement information from commercial questionnaires and surveys. SLPs must also recognize that not all individuals who use AAC will share the same beliefs about AAC as their families (O. Harris, 2015).

Linguistic Considerations

When assessing individuals who speak more than one language, the clinician collects a thorough description of prior language exposure and proficiency as well as current level of functioning in every language used. Selection of an AAC system should be informed by the individual's current skill level in each language.

For individuals who speak more than one language, clinicians consider changes in language proficiency due to acquired injury. For example, a bilingual individual with aphasia may no longer be as proficient in all languages used prior to the injury. AAC tools should support various languages and dialects when possible; if the AAC system does not support the individual's home language, he or she may be unable to communicate in the home, and carryover will be limited (Dukhovny & Kelly, 2015).

Ideally, AAC systems with the ability to switch between messages in different languages are considered. Several AAC companies offer devices or software that include multilingual functionality. As more apps for tablets are developed, options for language-specific AAC technology are also improving. See Dukhovny and Kelly (2015) for availability of SGDs with multilingual capabilities.

Involving families and caregivers in the assessment process often involves working with an interpreter or translator. See Collaborating With Interpreters, Transliterators, and Translators and Cultural Competence for more information.

School-Based Services

In the school-based setting, the SLP works as part of a team that typically includes general and special education teachers, paraprofessionals, physical and occupational therapists, teachers of students with visual or hearing impairment, music therapists, administrators, nurses, case managers, and family members.

The school-based SLP is typically responsible for

  • completing the comprehensive speech-language evaluation;
  • considering the student's need for assistive technology, including AAC;
  • requesting, coordinating, or conducting a transdisciplinary AAC evaluation within the student's natural environment and educational setting that includes both the student and his or her parent/guardian;
  • providing trial periods with AAC systems and collecting data;
  • providing a variety of multimodal supports (no-tech, low/light-tech and high-tech) to allow the student to communicate across various environments in the school setting;
  • writing and implementing goals related to speech, language, literacy, participation, and use of AAC as part of the IEP team;
  • following through with recommendations;
  • ensuring that the student's needs are met by others on the evaluation and treatment team; and
  • providing initial and ongoing training to teachers, parents, and support staff about AAC and the needs of students who use AAC.

Important considerations for this population include

  • providing an AAC system that allows the student to access the general education curriculum and
  • supporting the transition between home and school and between classrooms and schools.

The school-based SLP works as part of a team that may include an AAC specialist who facilitates or completes the AAC evaluation. Implementing AAC in the schools is the responsibility of the school-based team—which includes the school SLP—and may include support from an AAC specialist. If the IEP team determines that AAC is required in order for a student to be provided a free and appropriate public education (FAPE), the technology must be provided to implement the IEP.

Acute Care Settings

In the acute care setting, the SLP works as part of a team that often includes doctors, nursing staff, physical and occupational therapists, case managers, family members, and caregivers.

Important considerations for this population include

  • fluctuating physical, cognitive, and linguistic abilities secondary to medication side effects, pain, arousal/alertness, and acuity of illness;
  • positioning and access to AAC from hospital bed; and
  • vocabulary that allows the individual to participate in his or her medical care by expressing basic wants and needs, indicating refusal or rejection, and expressing preferences related to medical care.
End of Life

When evaluating an individual for AAC at the end stages of life, the SLP considers

  • flexibility of access method as physical abilities change or decline;
  • vocabulary selection to ensure that the individual will be able to express his or her wishes, desires, and feelings; and
  • the individual's access to social networks and the Internet.

See End-of-Life issues in Speech-Language Pathology for more information.

Treatment

See the Treatment section of the Augmentative and Alternative Communication evidence map for pertinent scientific evidence, expert opinion, and client/caregiver perspectives.

The goal of intervention is to maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of communication for individuals who are unable to communicate via traditional means. Whenever possible, intervention takes place in a naturalistic environment in order to promote generalization. Treatment focuses on using AAC to improve functional communication, increase language and literacy skills, improve speech production and comprehensibility with use of multiple modalities, decrease challenging behaviors, and improve social communication.

AAC interventions address the development of adequate, functional communication skills to support individuals with complex communication needs in developing, rebuilding, or sustaining communicative competence to express needs and wants, develop social closeness, exchange information, and participate in social etiquette routines as required (Drager et al., 2010; Light & McNaughton, 2014).

AAC intervention requires ongoing decision making and training to promote communicative competence and language and literacy development, as well as modifications to AAC systems to support changes in communication needs over time. For individuals using aided approaches, intervention may include customization of vocabulary, rate enhancement features that allow users to produce language with fewer keystrokes, and updates to software for high-tech devices.

Preferred practice for AAC intervention incorporates multiple communication modalities so that the user is not restricted to aided or unaided approaches but can use a combination of communication modalities, depending on the environment, listener, and intent of the message.

See Person-Centered Focus on Function: Augmentative and Alternative Communication for Adult with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) [PDF] and Person-Centered Focus on Function: Augmentative and Alternative Communication for Child with Cerebral Palsy [PDF] for examples of functional goals consistent with the ICF framework. 

Family Involvement

Families are integral to the assessment and treatment process. Family members bring important and unique understanding of the strengths, challenges, and needs of the individual who uses AAC. In addition to helping the individual identify goals and objectives for treatment, family members and caregivers often have input into the type of AAC system used, daily communication needs, and vocabulary incorporated into the system. This helps ensure carryover and functional use of the system in everyday life. Partial or complete abandonment of AAC can occur when family input is not considered during AAC intervention (Angelo, Jones, & Kokoska, 1995; Parette, Brotherson, & Huer, 2000; Parette, VanBiervliet, & Hourcade, 2000).

See Family-Centered Practice for general guidelines.

Working With Other Professionals

SLPs often work with other professionals to improve the success of AAC intervention.

  • Physical and occupational therapists assist with positioning and selection methods for AAC users.
  • Vision specialists assist in determining the best ways for an individual to process and understand symbols and to reduce visual barriers to symbols.
  • Rehabilitation engineers or assistive technology professionals help SLPs and AAC users with programming, accessibility, and efficient use of the AAC device.
  • Special education and classroom teachers can help the SLP incorporate curriculum-related vocabulary into the AAC system and facilitate use of the AAC system in the classroom.
  • Behavior specialists can assist SLPs with identifying challenging behaviors that affect communication.
  • Vocational rehabilitation specialists provide education to employers regarding workplace accessibility and inclusion of the AAC user in vocational activities.
  • Members of the medical team include nurses, doctors, case managers, and social workers assist with medical management and transition planning. 

See Collaboration and Teaming and Interprofessional Education/Interprofessional Practice (IPE/IPP).

Communication Partner Training

In addition to limitations of the AAC device itself and insufficient involvement in device selection, inadequate training of communication partners has been identified as a barrier to device use (Bailey et al., 2006). For example, when communicating with children who use AAC, communication partners are more likely to ask yes–no questions instead of open-ended questions, dominate the conversation, or fail to respond to the individual's communication attempts (e.g., Houghton, Bronicki, & Guess, 1987; Light, Collier, & Parnes, 1985).

Communication partner training facilitates effective communication and incorporates instruction in the following skills:

  • Using active listening strategies
  • Increasing wait time for conversational turn-taking
  • Using augmented input to facilitate communication (e.g., visual and environmental cues)
  • Helping the user take advantage of rate enhancement features
  • Understanding the technical aspects of high-tech devices (e.g., turning the device on and off; charging and storing the device; programming; and troubleshooting)

The SLP trains multiple communication partners, including other professionals who work with the AAC user.

Treatment Options

Treatment selection depends on a number of factors, including the individual's communication needs, the presence and severity of co-occurring conditions (e.g., cerebral palsy, apraxia of speech, aphasia, or progressive neurological diseases), and the individual's cultural and linguistic background and values.

Once an AAC system is selected, intervention will initially focus on training the individual and his or her family/caregivers in how to use the device (i.e., operational competence). Interventions quickly move toward incorporating use of the AAC system into a naturalistic environment and using the system to address broader communication goals such as language and literacy development and social interaction.

Below are brief descriptions of both general and specific treatment approaches and instructional strategies for AAC intervention, listed in alphabetical order. Some are prescribed interventions with specified procedures, and some are more general approaches to language organization and/or system presentation.

This list is not exhaustive, and the inclusion of any specific treatment approach does not imply endorsement from ASHA.

Augmented Input

Augmented input—also called "natural aided language" or "aided language modeling"—is a receptive language training approach in which the communication partner provides spoken words along with AAC symbols during communication tasks (e.g., partner points to the AAC symbols while simultaneously talking).

Augmented input is based on the concept that language input provides a model for language development. This approach can lead to increased symbol comprehension in young AAC users and in users with severe cognitive or intellectual disabilities (Binger & Light, 2007; Drager et. al., 2006, 2010), as well as increased symbol comprehension and production (Binger & Light, 2007; Goossens', Crain, & Elder, 1992; M. Harris & Reichle, 2004).

Behavioral Interventions

Behavioral interventions are used to teach desired behaviors and are based on behavioral/operant principles of learning (i.e., differential reinforcement, modeling, prompting, and fading). Behavioral methods involve examining antecedents that elicit a behavior, along with the consequences that follow the behavior. Adjustments in this chain are made to increase desired behaviors and/or decrease inappropriate ones. Behavioral interventions range from one-to-one discrete trial instruction to naturalistic approaches.

Discrete Trial Training (DTT)

DTT is a one-to-one instructional approach using behavioral methods to teach skills in small, incremental steps in a systematic, controlled fashion. The teaching opportunity is a discrete trial with a clearly identified antecedent and consequence (e.g., reinforcement in the form of praise or tangible rewards) for desired behaviors. DTT is most often used for skills that (a) learners are not initiating on their own, (b) have a clear, correct procedure, and (c) can be taught in a one-to-one setting.

Milieu Therapy

Milieu therapy includes a range of methods—including incidental teaching, time delay, and mand-model procedures—that are integrated into a child's natural environment. It includes training in everyday environments and during activities that take place throughout the day, rather than only at "therapy time." Milieu language teaching and other related procedures offer systematic approaches for prompting children to expand their repertoire of communication functions and to use increasingly complex language skills (Kaiser, Yoder, & Keetz, 1992; Kasari et al., 2014).

Incidental Teaching

Incidental teaching is a teaching technique that uses behavioral procedures to teach elaborated language; naturally occurring teaching opportunities are provided, based on the individual's interests. The clinician reinforces the individual's attempts to communicate as these attempts get closer to the desired communication behavior (McGee, Morrier, & Daly, 1999). Incidental teaching requires initiation by the individual, which serves to begin a language teaching episode. If the person does not initiate, an expectant look and a time delay might be sufficient to prompt language use. The clinician can prompt with a question (e.g., "What do you want?") or model a request (e.g., "Say: I need paint.").

Time Delay

Time delay is a behavioral method of teaching that fades the use of prompts during instruction. For example, the time delay between initial instruction and any additional instruction or prompting is gradually increased as the individual becomes more proficient at the skill being taught. Time delay can be used with individuals regardless of cognitive level or expressive communication abilities.

Core Vocabulary Approach

Using this approach, the clinician teaches the individual an initial set of core vocabulary. This core set often consists of common words used by most people across contexts. This approach also takes into account vocabulary used by typically communicating peers and any additional words needed by the user, based on input from family members, teachers, and so forth. As more words are added to the AAC display, words from the initial set remain in the same location to minimize demands on memory and motor planning. The variety of word types (pronouns, verbs, descriptors, question words, etc.) used in a core vocabulary approach allows the individual to express a variety of communicative functions such as asking questions, requesting, rejecting, protesting, commenting, and describing.

For individuals with congenital disabilities who use AAC, core vocabulary is likely represented by symbols—or by symbols combined with orthography. For those with acquired disabilities, the core vocabulary may consist of only orthography, depending on premorbid and current literacy level. If a focus of AAC intervention is to develop oral and written communication skills, a foundation of language skills based in core vocabulary is crucial (Witkowski & Baker, 2012).

Facilitated Communication

Facilitated communication is a technique by which a "facilitator" provides physical and other supports in an attempt to assist a person with a significant communication disability to point to pictures, objects, printed letters, and words, or to a keyboard in order to communicate. Supporters of this technique believe that its use can reveal previously undetected literacy and communication skills in persons with autism and other disabilities.

According to ASHA's position statement titled Facilitated Communication, "It is the position of the American Speech-Language Hearing Association (ASHA) that the scientific validity and reliability of facilitated communication have not been demonstrated to date. Information obtained through or based on facilitated communication should not form the sole basis for making any diagnostic or treatment decisions" (ASHA, 1995, para. 2).

Functional Communication Training

Often the first focus of linguistic intervention for the AAC user involves development of functional communication skills, including expressing wants and needs, gaining attention, indicating preferences, and protesting. For example, individuals can be taught to make requests by using symbols, objects, or words to indicate desired objects or actions (Johnston, Reichle, Feeley, & Jones, 2012). Functional communication skills help minimize communication breakdowns and reduce the occurrence of challenging behaviors (Carr & Durand, 1985; Mirenda, 1997).

Language Acquisition Through Motor Planning (LAMP)

Language Acquisition Through Motor Planning (LAMP) is a therapeutic approach based on neurological and motor learning principles that uses a high-tech AAC system to provide the child with opportunities to initiate activity, engage in communication around activities of their choice, and access consistent motor plans to locate vocabulary (Potts & Satterfield, 2013).

The LAMP approach teaches the individual to independently select words and build sentences on a voice output AAC device using consistent motor plans to access vocabulary. LAMP's emphasis on motor planning may reduce the cognitive demands of choosing from a symbol set and may result in more automatic and faster communication (Autism Spectrum Australia [Aspect], 2013).

The LAMP approach involves a combination of the following principles for teaching language and the programming of the device:

  1. Readiness to learn—ability to focus on a learning experience
  2. Shared engagement—learning to communicate while interacting with others
  3. Consistent motor patterns—learning the consistent and unique motor patterns for accessing words that have been programmed on the device
  4. Single words—teaching single words so that an individual can build sentences word by word, rather than by pushing a button with a stock phrase or sentence
  5. Auditory signals—associating a button press to the spoken word generated by the device
  6. Natural consequences—learning that a button press on the device results in a reaction from the communication partner (e.g., receiving food when the child presses the button that speaks, "eat").
Mentoring Programs

Mentoring programs pair young, newly proficient AAC users with older, more experienced users, with the intention of providing positive role models, teaching higher level sociorelational skills, and improving self-confidence and desire to achieve personal, educational, and professional goals. In addition to improving self-confidence and sociorelational skills in the newly proficient AAC user, mentors also benefit from the training experience that prepares them for participation in mentoring programs (Light et al., 2007).

Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)

Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) is a specific, manualized intervention program for individuals with ASD and other developmental disabilities that is intended to shape a child's expressive communication abilities using prompting and reinforcement strategies. PECS training consists of six progressive instructional phases:

  1. How to Communicate—exchanging single pictures for desired items/activities
  2. Distance and Persistence—generalizing picture exchange to different situations and communication partners
  3. Picture Discrimination—selecting from two or more pictures (typically stored in a communication book) to request items/activities
  4. Sentence Structure—constructing simple sentences by adding a picture of the desired item to a sentence strip that begins with an "I want" carrier phrase
  5. Answering Questions—using a picture to request an item/activity in response to the question, "What do you want?"
  6. Responsive and Spontaneous Commenting—using pictures to respond to a variety of questions (e.g., "What do you see?" "What do you have?" "What is this?") to introduce commenting behavior

PECS requires preparation of pictures on the part of the facilitator and acceptance and ability to transport a communication board or book on the part of the user (Flippin, Reska, & Watson, 2010).

Pragmatic Organization Dynamic Display (PODD) Communication Books

Pragmatic Organization Dynamic Display (PODD) is a system of organizing and selecting words or symbol vocabulary on a low-tech or high-tech AAC system, so that individuals with complex communication needs and their communication partners can communicate more easily. The aim is to provide vocabulary for continuous communication all the time, across a range of different topics, using a variety of messages.

PODD communication books can vary with regard to symbol size, numbers of items on a page, language complexity, access method, and presentation mode (visual or auditory), depending on the specific needs of the individual. Vocabulary organization takes into account communicative function and flow of conversational discourse. Books include symbols for navigation such as "Go to page____"; colored page tabs that match page numbers; and symbols for specific operational commands such as "Turn the page," "Go back to page__," and so forth. The first pages of the PODD book often include words or phrases to support behavioral and environmental regulation and may also include pragmatic starters such as "Something's wrong," "I want something," or "I'm asking a question" to help individuals convey contextual information (Porter & Cafiero, 2009).

Total Communication (TC)

Total communication (TC) is a holistic approach to communication that promotes the use of all modes of communication, including sign language, spoken language, gestures, facial expression, and environmental cues such as pictures and sounds. Although TC is most commonly associated with approaches to educating children who are deaf or hard of hearing (Denton, 1976), it has also been used with other populations, such as individuals with ASD (e.g., Nunes, 2008; Wong & Wong, 1991).

Video-Based Instruction

Video-based instruction (also called "video modeling") is an observational mode of teaching that uses video recordings to provide a model of the target behavior or skill. Video recordings of desired behaviors are observed and then imitated by the individual. The learner's self-modeling can be videotaped for later review.

Visual Prompting Strategies

Visual prompting strategies use visual cues (e.g., pointing or gesturing) to help individuals with disabilities maintain attention, understand spoken language, sequence events, organize environments, or increase independence with task completion (Hodgdon, 1995). Visual prompts can be general (e.g., gesturing toward the communication system) or specific (e.g., pointing to a specific display location).

Visual prompting strategies can help increase an individual's ability to independently initiate tasks, sustain participation in an activity, perform multistep tasks, and participate in an increased variety of activities.

Use of visual prompting strategies that incorporate the same symbols from an individual's AAC system or that are incorporated into the system itself can help the AAC user understand, anticipate, and communicate about daily routines and can also help decrease challenging behaviors (Drager et al., 2010). Visual prompting strategies can create opportunities to increase aided language input or augmented input.

Visual Schedules

Visual schedules are a common method of visual prompting. Visual schedules use objects, photographs, drawings, written words, or other symbols to cue or prompt individuals to complete a sequence of tasks or activities. Symbols on the display are presented horizontally or vertically in sequence of occurrence and can represent activities within a day or week (or longer period) or the steps within a particular activity. Visual schedules that initiate or sustain interaction are called scripts. Scripts are often used to promote social interaction but can also be used in a classroom setting to facilitate academic interactions and promote academic engagement (Hart & Whalon, 2008).

Visual schedules can be used to

  • improve understanding of routines and expectations;
  • increase engagement time;
  • ease transitions from one activity to the next;
  • provide opportunities to make choices; and
  • increase an individual's control over his or her daily life (Mechling, 2007).

Treatment Considerations

Language Acquisition Via AAC

Language acquisition via AAC is different from language acquisition through typical means. Before acquiring AAC, children likely had (a) reduced means of expression and ability to control communication interactions and (b) fewer opportunities for exploring and interacting with their environment. During the language learning process, AAC users depend on someone else to provide vocabulary and content for their AAC system, and there may be few communicators who can model language using the same form of communication that the child is expected to use (Blockberger & Johnston, 2003; Blockberger & Sutton, 2003).

Acquisition of grammar (both morphology and syntax) can be especially challenging for AAC users who are simultaneously acquiring language, because morphological markers (e.g., tense and plural markers) are difficult to represent via symbols or may be excluded due to space constraints (Sutton, Soto, & Blockberger, 2002).

It is essential to provide support to all beginning communicators as they develop language skills. Children must be able to comprehend and use language to communicate with others in a wide variety of settings and to function effectively in the classroom. For children with disabilities, the skills to support language development very often must be explicitly taught. This includes building both receptive and expressive vocabulary (including both spoken words and AAC symbols). Specific types of vocabulary may need to be targeted (e.g., teaching verbs and adjectives to a child who primarily uses nouns). Once the child has acquired a good number of words and/or AAC symbols, he or she can be taught how to begin combining words to form sentences (Kent-Walsh & Binger, 2009).

Literacy Development and AAC

Children who are nonverbal or who have complex communication needs often have less exposure to language and literacy due to motor, sensory, cognitive, or other impairments.

Lack of literacy development restricts AAC users to nonorthographic symbols and limits their ability for novel message generation (Millar, Light, & McNaughton, 2004). Nonverbal children may have difficulty acquiring phonemic awareness—an essential skill for literacy development—because they are unable to produce the sounds (Hetzroni, 2004; Millar et al., 2004).

Literacy instruction for AAC users incorporates AAC, assistive technology, and task adaptations that can support literacy learning in children with CCN (Hetzroni, 2004; Light & McNaughton, 2012). Many literacy activities, such as those listed below, can be adapted to meet the needs of AAC users:

  • Print awareness activities using adapted books and modeling behaviors (e.g., pointing out title and author, front and back of book, directionality of print, etc.)
  • Decoding activities (e.g., segmenting and blending sounds) using materials appropriate to motor and sensory needs
  • Engaging in shared reading and reading discussions with ready access to communication device and other supports to allow maximum participation
  • Access to letter boards or adaptive keyboards via direct or indirect selection
  • Direct instruction in decoding and encoding

Literacy intervention for children who use AAC also includes instruction on how to read for a variety of purposes while drawing on one's own relevant background knowledge and personal experiences (Erickson, Koppenhaver, & Cunningham, 2006).

School-Based Setting

When working with school-age children who use AAC, clinicians consider the amount of support that the child will need in order to use their AAC system within the school (classroom, lunchroom, hallways, play and leisure activities, etc.) and outside the school setting. Vocabulary selection should give the individual access to the general education curriculum along with access to and use of vocabulary for social communication and functional needs. The SLP is also responsible for IEP documentation.

Possible challenges of AAC intervention in the schools include

  • securing funding for AAC devices and accessing necessary resources;
  • lack of buy-in (e.g., from the educational team, administrators, or parents);
  • poor student attendance; and
  • inconsistent implementation of AAC across school and home settings.

These challenges can be overcome or prevented by

  • partnering with a state tech-act agency or regional or state support center to obtain materials and equipment for loaner and trial periods;
  • developing a structured implementation plan with defined roles and responsibilities;
  • Involving the students, parents, teachers, and administrator in the AAC process from initial consideration through implementation; and
  • encouraging and promoting interprofessional education (IPE) and interprofessional practice (IPP).

According to the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Section 300.105 on assistive technology,

On a case-by-case basis, the use of school-purchased assistive technology devices in a child's home or in other settings is required if the child's IEP Team determines that the child needs access to those devices in order to receive free and appropriate public education (FAPE; IDEA, 2004).

Transitioning Youth And PostSecondary Students

The transition from adolescence to young adulthood can be challenging for individuals with or without disabilities. The challenges associated with AAC use can present added challenges to success in postsecondary educational or vocational training programs, employment settings, and independent or semi-independent living situations. SLPs are involved in transition planning and may be involved in other support services beyond high school. Support for transitioning individuals who use AAC includes, but is not limited to, transition planning, disability support services, vocational support services, housing assistance, and support for community integration.

See ASHA's Transitioning Youth page for more information.

Adult/Vocational

When working with adults who are using AAC, the SLP considers when the individual started using AAC and, if the individual is using AAC for the first time, his or her skills (e.g., language, cognition, motor) prior to becoming an AAC user. These factors may affect the individual's acceptance of AAC, his or her desire and ability to return to or enter the workforce, any accommodations that will be needed, and the need for communication partner training.

The following should be taken into account when facilitating transition and selecting an appropriate AAC system:

  • Concerns regarding device ownership following school-based intervention
  • Current setting and next transition stage—acute care setting, subacute facility, outpatient clinic
  • Ability of AAC system to incorporate vocabulary for various settings (e.g., medical, leisure, recreational, vocational)
  • Need for strategies to support partner-dependent and independent communication (e.g., written choice or visual supports)
  • Vocational training as well as intervention and acceptance of AAC in employment setting
  • Considerations for work-related communication (e.g., conference calls, e-mails, etc.)
  • Accessibility of work (or other) environment
End of life

SLPs often assist individuals with reduced or impaired communication when nearing the end of life. The goal of intervention at this stage is to develop communication strategies that will facilitate efficient and effective communication for as long as possible, including connecting with the outside world via social media, e-mail, and texting. The expected outcome of intervention is not to improve abilities but to allow the individual to express wants and needs and to participate in decision making to the best of his or her abilities.

SLPs need to understand the process of dying to understand the emotional and psychological issues faced by individuals and their family members. The wishes of the patient and family are of utmost importance, and the SLP's role extends only as far as the patient and family chooses.

See End-of-Life Issues in Speech-Language Pathology for more information.

Abandonment

The term abandonment is used differently throughout AAC literature. We use abandonment here to mean that an individual has stopped using an AAC device, even though one is still needed.

Abandonment of an AAC system occurs in approximately one third of cases (Zangari & Kangas, 1997), even if the system is well designed and functional (Johnson, Inglebret, Jones, & Ray, 2006).

The following factors may lead to abandonment on the part of the AAC user (Johnson et al., 2006; Light, Stoltz, & McNaughton, 1996; Pape, Kim, & Weiner, 2002):

  • Frustration due to lack of AAC knowledge on the part of the professional
  • Negative attitudes toward persons with disabilities and the stigma associated with AAC
  • AAC might symbolize disease progression
  • Slow rate and low frequency of communication
  • Equipment breakdowns
  • Lack of relevant vocabulary
  • Failure to consider cultural differences in AAC system design
  • Lack of support for device use on the part of caregivers; belief that they can communicate effectively without the device
  • Lack of motivation by the user and family members or caregivers

Abandonment can be reduced if

  • the AAC system serves the communication needs of the individual and can be updated when these needs change;
  • there is a good match between the device and the user's language, physical, and cognitive abilities;
  • there is collaboration with the AAC user and their family to incorporate their needs and values during selection of the device;
  • the clinician provides realistic timelines regarding progress and use of the device that are understood by the user;
  • the AAC user experiences communication success with the system;
  • the AAC user values the system and has a sense of ownership;
  • thorough training is conducted with both the AAC user and the family/caregiver after receipt of the device; and
  • ongoing training is conducted for new communication partners (e.g., new staff at a vocational setting).

Expelling common myths surrounding AAC can also lead to improved long-term use and can reduce abandonment.

State/Federal Laws and Regulations

Reimbursement and Funding

SLPs who provide AAC services should be familiar with funding options and should have a good understanding of public and private funding sources, including how funding is determined and how advocacy has and will affect funding in the future. SGD vendors often have in-house experts who can help with funding questions.

Low-tech AAC systems are typically created by an SLP and do not require significant amounts of funding, apart from what is typically required for standard SLP interventions. In addition, insurance plans are less likely to cover non–speech-generating devices, although they may cover the therapy sessions. Medicare will not cover non–speech-generating devices.

SGDs are considered durable medical equipment (DME), and funding by third party payers can vary. Medicare covers SGDs for (a) patients ages 65 years and older, (b) patients at any age who are diagnosed with ALS, and (c) patients younger than age 65 years with other qualifying disabilities. Many third party payers apply Medicare requirements when they review funding requests; however, SLPs will need to verify coverage based on their client's specific needs and insurance.

Many device manufacturers provide templates and assistance with funding requests; this does not take the place of a comprehensive AAC evaluation. However, they do include the elements necessary to obtain the device. The SLP must always justify that the device being ordered is medically necessary in order to receive third party funding.

SLPs writing AAC evaluations and completing funding requests must disclose any financial relationships that they have with device manufacturers and must certify that their recommendation for device selection is based on a comprehensive evaluation and preferred practice patterns and are not due to any financial incentive. A payer will often require that an SLP consider at least three SGDs during their evaluation process, and those devices must not be from the same manufacturer or product line.

The Assistive Technology Act

The 2004 Assistive Technology Act (ATA), first enacted as the Technology-Related Assistance Act of 1988, provides states with federal funding to support efforts aimed at improving the provision of assistive technology (AT) to meet the needs of individuals with disabilities. Provisions may include access to and acquisition of assistive technology devices and services through statewide assistive technology programs, alternative financing programs, and protection and advocacy for assistive technology programs (ATA, 2004).

Medicare

Under current Medicare guidelines, SGDs are covered by Medicare Part B only. Medicare Part A does not provide coverage for SGDs. Patients covered by Medicare Part A (typically those in acute care hospitals or acute rehabilitation hospitals) who do not already have an SGD would not be covered for a personal device during their inpatient hospitalization. The facility is responsible for providing a device while the patient is an inpatient. The only exception to the Medicare Part A coverage is for persons under the Home Health benefit; an SGD can be obtained through Medicare Part B funding while the patient is under a Medicare Part A Home Health Plan of Care.

In April 2015, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) proposed changes to the scope of national coverage for SGDs. The proposed changes now include funding for the following:

  • Software that allows a computer or other electronic device (tablet) to function as an SGD
  • A device that allows for multiple access methods
  • Other features of the device, which include capability to generate e-mail, text, or phone messages that allow the patient to communicate remotely
  • Updates to covered features of the device from the manufacturer or supplier of the device (e.g., software updates)

Internet or phone services—or any modification to a client's home that allows for use of an SGD—are not covered by Medicare because they can be used for nonmedical purposes. Features that are not used by the individual to meet functional speaking needs are not covered (e.g., hardware or software used to create documents, play games or music, videoconferencing).

See ASHA's Medicare Speech-Generating Devices Information, Medicare Coverage Policy on Speech-Generating Devices as well as guidelines from CMS.

Medicaid

Medicaid has covered SGDs since the late 1970s. Requirements for funding and documentation for AAC devices paid for through Medicaid vary by state. Medicaid recipients are entitled to coverage for SGDs if they live at home or in nursing facilities. Medicaid managed care organizations must cover SGDs in the same way as traditional Medicaid programs in that state. Refer to the Medicaid Guidelines for your state.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), commonly called the Affordable Care Act (ACA) of 2010 prohibits disability-based discrimination in insurance policies for essential health benefits, which often includes SGDs. Under the ACA, each state has a benchmark plan, and the scope of coverage for essential health benefits must be at least equal to the scope of coverage in the state's benchmark plan. Several federal employee health benefits programs have complete SGD exclusion or annual dollar limits on SGDs (Golinker, 2015).

Private Insurance Plans

Private insurance plans often follow Medicare guidelines regarding funding and documentation. The amount of coverage for an SGD provided by a private insurance company will vary, based on the company and the plan. SLPs working with private insurance should complete a comprehensive AAC evaluation and verify coverage based on the individual's benefits.

Funding For Tablets, Apps, And Computers

Tablets, apps, and computers are considered nondurable, nondedicated devices, and private insurance companies' coverage for these devices varies. SLPs need to verify coverage with the individual's insurance, based on that individual's specific plan and coverage.

Medicaid policies and funding vary from state to state; some states have begun to provide funding for tablets and/or speech-generating software. For example, New York Medicaid will pay for an SGD software program for nondedicated devices (e.g., laptop, tablet) already owned by the beneficiary (New York State Medicaid Speech Generating Device and Related Accessories Guidelines, 2012).

Individuals should check with their state for Medicaid funding policies.

Medicare does not cover the following:

  • Laptop computers, desktop computers, and tablets, which may be programmed to perform the same function as an SGD because they are not primarily "medical" in nature and do not meet the definition of DME
  • A device that is useful to someone without severe speech impairment

Funding for Telecommunication Equipment

Technology to assist with communication over the phone may be covered by a state's Telecommunication Equipment Distribution Program Association (TEDPA). SLPs should consult their state's specific TEDPA for assistance.

Funding for Accessories

Accessories like mounts and those used for access (switches, eye gaze, head mouse) are covered by third party payers as long as medical necessity is established. In April 2015, the U.S. Senate passed the Steve Gleason Act, which clarifies the CMS policy that eye-tracking accessories for SGDs are a Medicare-covered benefit. As of January 1, 2016, eye-tracking accessories for SGDs are covered by CMS.

Content Disclaimer: The Practice Portal, ASHA policy documents, and guidelines contain information for use in all settings; however, members must consider all applicable local, state and federal requirements when applying the information in their specific work setting.