AAC Awareness month may be over, but it’s still super important to discuss how it affects us and those around us. AAC stands for Augmentative and Alternative Communication. Each and every one of us communicates in some form or fashion, and it’s likely that you use AAC in day to day life! Have you ever been in a rush or a bit busy while someone asks you a question, so you answer with a simple head nod, or maybe a shrug? That’s an example of what AAC looks like! But why do we sometimes shy away from those of us that use it a bit more than others?
Some children and adults with special needs may use more obvious forms of AAC, such as communication boards or pen and paper to communicate in a way that works best for them. For example, people with cerebral palsy, a congenital disorder that affects an individual’s ability to move, talk, and maintain balance and posture, often times must use communication boards to convey their needs and wants, as they may be unable to speak properly. Communication boards may be simple or complex, and they are a great low tech option. Simple boards may have pictures displaying food, actions, and words. More complex communication boards might even be electronic, with an integrated system of words, pictures, and sounds to help the individual communicate. For example, if a user wants their favorite snack, they could select an option for food that will display a list of snacks that they can choose from to let their caregiver know. These systems can be personalized for what the user understands and needs out of their board.
The way selections are made with communication boards may also vary. There are three simple methods of selection: direct selection, scanning, and encoding. Direct selection may be pointing with the individual’s finger or eye, or using a stick attached to their head or mouth to point at their selection. Scanning involves pointing or stopping on images or words until it gets to what the user wants. Some users may have a caregiver show them pictures and ask questions until they reach the user’s want or need. Other users can use light or sound from their board to select options. Encoding involves using numbers or shapes as a message. For example, selecting a triangle may mean “I need to use the bathroom”, or the number 1 could mean that the user is tired, or wants to play a game. For AAC users with limited range of motion, eye gaze is also a selection option with high and low tech AAC systems. Eye gaze can be set with an electronic device, and a laser pointer or light can be used for selection with low tech devices.
It may be more challenging to communicate with individuals that utilize more advanced forms of AAC, and it can require a lot of patience to have a conversation or ask questions. Because of this, we often times see people that struggle to communicate with these individuals and they eventually may avoid it altogether. But those people want to communicate just as much as we do! Just because they cannot always verbally express it does not mean they do not understand or don’t have anything to say. They just require alternative ways of communicating. And this is why AAC awareness is important for everyone. Communication is one of the most important human needs, and everyone deserves to have a voice. AAC awareness empowers us all to listen and be accepting of others’ differences, and to always have the patience to communicate with those of us that have different means of expressing themselves. It is important to remember, we should talk to an AAC user just like we’d talk to anyone else. This is especially important for children using AAC, as listening to language is one of the best ways to develop vocabulary, learn concepts, and develop social language skills.
AAC use goes beyond the month of October, and so should your awareness! Challenge yourself to communicate more with people that have special needs and use AAC. You might learn a thing or two!