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  • By: Jennifer Schubring, M.S., CCC-SLP

AAC - A Throw-Away Technology?

Today's world of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) looks much different than it did ten, twenty, or thirty years ago. Advancements in technology have given many individuals opportunities to try technologies that were either "too expensive" or deemed "too difficult" for a person with complex communication needs (CCN). Mobile technologies have opened up many doors due to the increased availability, but at what cost? I was watching this video of an expert communicator, Chris Klein, this morning and it got me thinking about how he became an independent communicator. Here is a video of Chris using his device and explaining the system he uses.

Chris accesses his communication system with his toe to direct select icons. He uses Minspeak, which is a language system that uses a picture to represent multiple meanings/words. Users learn the sequences, which are generally no more than 2-3 icons put-together, to communicate a word. The sequences are never changed, so once you learn the sequence you create a motor plan and it becomes automatic. Chris uses the analogy of "playing a piano" in the video to describe how efficiently he can communicate using motor planning. Another way to think about motor planning is to compare it to typing. We all know those people who have to "hunt and peck" on a keyboard. It takes them a LONG time to type. Many of us are proficient at typing and no longer need to think about where each key is, it's automatic because we have memorized the motor sequence. The ultimate goal for proficient AAC users is to help them learn motor plans so that communicating becomes automatic and the words can flow from their fingers, toes, or whatever access method that individual uses.

So, as I was watching the video it got me thinking about how mobile technology has impacted the field of AAC. Because communication apps and programs have become more affordable, I have seen more people offering input as to what an individual should use. Teachers, behavior interventionists, other parents, random strangers in Facebook groups, everyone seems to have an opinion and isn't afraid to tell caregivers what they think is best for the individual. Sadly, AAC has also become a "throw-away" technology when it isn't successful, but at what cost to the individual with complex communication needs?

I'd argue that a comprehensive evaluation is still the way to go when looking at augmentative and alternative communication systems. I've been called in when the individual isn't making progress to try and fix the situation. If we want individuals with CCNs to get to a point that they are "playing a piano" (a.k.a., independent communicators) it takes a lot of work and effort, and the right system to meet that individual's long-term needs. Many times a system is introduced, let's think of this as learning Spanish, and then five years down the road the app is switched because there isn't enough words available, the individual has plateaued and isn't making progress, the access method isn't working, new staff working with the individual is more familiar with a different app, or a wide variety of other reasons. The app is then switched or a new AAC system is introduced, requiring that person to learn another new language, let's pick German this time! It is difficult to learn a new language, but yet we continually do this to individuals with CCNs. We need to stop picking systems because someone once knew someone who did well with that device/app. Everyone is unique and we need to evaluate each individual and provide support that is customized to each person.

We can write a different story, a better story for individuals with CCNs. If a comprehensive AAC evaluation is conducted when an individual is first introduced to AAC, the evaluator will find a system that will be robust, provide a variety of access methods and find the one that works best. In addition, thoughtful, planned out goals to help the individual increase their language skills, learn motor plans, and communicate in their natural environments is important to supporting the individual with complex communication needs learning their "new language." Putting a device in front of an individual and expecting them to request chips or juice isn't building language. Learning how to share news about your day at the dinner table, arguing and tattling on your sibling, commenting on the animals at the zoo, asking where your favorite _____ is, telling your teacher about visiting Grandma and Grandpa's house over the weekend, or telling your Mom and Dad that you need a drink, have to go to the bathroom, want a story, and need a cuddle to avoid bedtime, that is true communication. If we keep picking the wrong communication system it becomes harder and harder to become an independent communicator.

Building AAC is about building better communication systems through engagement, language development, family/caregiver training, providing communication opportunities that are meaningful, and building skills to provide a communication system that will last a lifetime, not just a few years and then be abandoned. Building AAC wants to help you build a system that will meet long-term needs. If you're not in Northeastern Wisconsin, please find a local professional that will look at a variety of systems and provide you with a comprehensive assessment. Don't settle for someone who knows one app or system and only recommends that one. If you're looking for someone in your area contact your local universities, your state speech/language association, or check out this website: SpeechScience! To contact Building AAC for services in Northeastern Wisconsin, please email us @:

If you're interested in listening more to Chris Klein's story, check out his TEDX talk!

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