What is assistive technology?

Assistive technology is any kind of technology and/or tool that can be used to enhance the functional independence of a person with a disability. Often, for people with disabilities, accomplishing daily tasks such as communicating with others, going to school or work, or participating in activities can be a challenge. Assistive Technology (AT) devices are tools to help overcome those challenges and enable people living with disabilities to enhance and have access to a quality of life, that may otherwise not be known, and lead more independent lives.

The mission of this blog is to serve as a voice of a constant researcher in the field of educational and assistive technologies so that the best products, strategies and services may be located easily, in hopes that they will then be delivered, taught and used to better the lives of people with disabilities.


Introducing AAC

New to AAC? Let's learn together!

Picture Communication Symbol from Boardmaker

AAC stands for "Augmentative and Alternative Communication." AAC, is a term that is used to describe various methods of communication that can help people who are unable to use verbal speech to communicate. AAC can benefit a wide range of individuals, from a beginning communicator to a more sophisticated communicator who generates his/her own messages.

AAC includes both unaided and aided systems. Unaided systems, like signing and gestures, do not require special materials or equipment. Aided systems use picture charts, books, and special computers. AAC methods vary and may be personalized to meet each individual’s needs. Many forms of AAC include an assistive technology component which ranges from high- to low-tech strategies.

This posting is about introducing an SGD (Speech Generated Device) to a new (usually young) user.

From the moment a baby is born, they hear and respond to the spoken word. We bombard that infant with language for the first 12-18 months of their lives. During that time, we do not expect that they will utter a single understandable word.

When we provide an AAC system, we often expect the child to spontaneously begin using an augmentative system from the first day they receive it. It is important for us to understand that the child receiving an alternative form of communication also needs and deserves a period of learning from the models of others. This modeling can and should be done by parents, peers, siblings, professionals and others on a regular basis for an extended period of time, just as we do with language and typically developing children: we model language. In this manner, the system becomes not only an expressive language tool but a receptive one as well. (See posting about Aided Language Stimulation to learn more about modeling.)

Always keep in mind- Communication is
  • Connection
  • Interaction
  • Understanding
  • A relationship with another person.
When you interact with your user of an AAC device, think about:

  • Providing lots of opportunities for them to communicate.
  • Modeling the use of AAC as you talk.
  • Waiting and allow them time to communicate. (This is a hard one but probably the most important. We tend to be an impatient civilization.)
  • Responding to their attempts to communicate. (A baby says, "Dada" and we respond, "Daddy, yes! That's your daddy!")
  • Remembering that communication is not all about making requests. (See The Communication Bill of Rights.)
  • Having fun!
Consider: What does competent communication look like? What is the long term goal?
Being able to say (according to Gayle Porter):
  • What I want to say,
  • To whom I want to say it to,
  • Whenever I want to say it,
  • However I choose to say it.
The research suggests that when partners model the use of AAC when they talk:
  • It helps children with special needs understand what is being said to them.
  • It shows the children how AAC can be used to enhance communication.
  • It introduces the children to new vocabulary and more complex messages.
Approaches to consider:
  • Let them "play" and explore it in a casual way.
  • Sit with them and explore/discuss what is on the device, i.e. "Look, if you want to say____ you can go here. Let's see, how did we get there?" Then model it and have them do it. (I do it, we do it, you do it.)
  • If you know they want to say something that is on the device, say to them, "Oh, I think that is in your talker! Let's go see. Look... You can use your words to tell me now."
  • Bring it into your natural environment as much as possible. Model, allow use, model, allow use... (Playing a board game, have the device sitting with you and use it during the game, i.e. "My turn", "Your turn", "Good job!", etc.
  • Treat it as you would anyone who is saying things. Example, if they are "talking" when they are not supposed to be, tell them, "It is not the time to talk now. Shhhh." If they ask for something, just let her know yes or no. "We don't have that. Sorry. We do have _____. Would you like that instead?" If they say something off the cuff that doesn't pertain to the situation, treat it as you would with any kind, i.e. "Now is not the time to talk about that. We are talking about ____."
  • This will not be their only way of communicating. If they want to show you what they are talking about, yes let them show you. If you are learning colors, do it the same way you have been. All of their school vocabulary does not need to be on the device.
Be patient.
Don't over prompt.
Make it available at all times.
Provide opportunities to communicate during play and other daily activities.

Include opportunities to:
  • Ask questions
  • Comment on play activities
  • Express feelings
  • Comment on books
  • Ask for preferred toys and activities
  • Communicate choices
  • Greet others
Get creative in your messages:
  • Tell you to turn up the music.
  • Tell the bus driver to drive the bus fast.
  • Tell the other students what songs to sing in circle time.
  • Say good-bye in creative ways.
  • Tell a knock-knock joke every morning.
Provide wait time. Remember they are still learning how to communicate.
  • They may need additional time to understand what is said to them.
  • They may need additional time to figure out how to answer a question or make a request.
  • They may need time to then think about how they want to respond.
  • They may have vision or motor challenges that delay their response time or ability to locate and indicate what they want to say.
Sit and wait patiently. Research suggests that one of the most effective ways to encourage children to communicate is to pause and wait.
  • Clearly marks the opportunity for them to communicate.
  • Clearly indicates that you expect them to communicate.
  • Provides additional time for them to process what is said.
  • Provides additional time for them to put together a reply.
Wait at least 10 seconds. If they look confused or frustrated, ask them if they would like you to help them. Then if they say yes, model a response.

If partners respond when children attempt to communicate, children learn that:
  • Communication is fun.
  • Communication is powerful.
  • Communicating connects them to other people.
Successful communication is give and take - back and forth between two people.

  • Model, demonstrate, touch the device!
  • Use age appropriate vocabulary.
Keep pushing to that next level. Don't remain in one place. We all continue to expand our vocabulary and so should they!

Check out this great poster and possibly post for your staff and yourself to help you remember key points: AAC Boot Camp Poster.

Most importantly, make it fun!!!

10 Classroom Implementation Ideas for AAC Users

10 Tips for Using a Natural Aided Language Board by Gail Van Tatenhove

Effects of Communication Partner Instruction on the Communication of Individuals using AAC: A 

Meta-Analysis Jennifer Kent-Walsh, Kimberly A. Murza, Melissa D. Malani and Cathy Binger is evidence-based practice to help inform the importance of teaching communication.

Kate Ahem discusses:
5 Reasons to use the high-quality vocabulary already included in your AAC system

Let’s Talk AAC Blog: Making AAC Work- PRC’s own Jane Odom will offer tips and suggestions for implementing AAC. "Model, Model, Model" and "Let's Have some Fun" By Jennifer Herzog, B.S., PRC Regional Consultant.

Research demonstrating how valuable this kind of modeling is for our AAC by Kathryn Drager, Cathy Binger and Janice Light, Jennifer Kent-Walsh, and Shakila Dada.

Adaptation Station - Augmentative/Alternative Communication (AAC) Strategies

Tips to Help Your Child Use Augmentative-Alternative Communication (AAC)

PrAACtical AAC website offers regular short and quick articles worth reading regularly!

updated: 3/2015