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  • Writer's pictureSpecial Needs Parents Network Donegal

Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) with Melanie Boyle AAC Consultant

 


Melanie Boyle is an Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) consultant at Communication Angel based in Dungloe Co. Donegal.   Her company, Communication Angel helps to empower families, schools and organisations who need support to become confident communication partners.


Special Needs Parents Network Donegal spoke to Melanie about AAC and how it can support children and adults with additional needs and disabilities. We explore frequently asked questions and concerns around getting started with AAC and Melanie provides evidence-based responses and support for families who are interested in exploring augmentative and alternative communication.  


Firstly, what is AAC?

AAC stands for Augmentative and Alternative Communication and is a term which encapsulates forms of communication such as body language, sign language (Lámh), paper and power based communication tools, books, Apps and devices. 

Paper and power based communication books, apps and devices are vital tools for individuals with complex communication needs, including non-speaking children. However, misconceptions surrounding AAC can create barriers for families who are new to using it with their children.


Will using AAC prevent my child from speaking? 

No, research suggests otherwise. A study by Drager et al. (2010), found that AAC interventions positively impact communication and language development in young children with complex communication needs. 

Try imagining your child with a communication toolbox. By providing them with multiple tools they can choose which communication method to use at that moment. This may be pointing to their preferred snack, nodding their head for yes, using their natural speech to sing and say your name or using their AAC device to ask to go to the park. 

Many power based AAC systems use voice output which provides additional support for speech production. Through exploring and using their power based AAC system they can experiment with language, building their confidence before producing their speech. 


Is AAC only for those who cannot speak? 

No. Some parents find that although their child can speak, they cannot meet all of their communication needs. This could be due to a limited vocabulary, unclear speech, use of the same short phrases repeatedly (Gestalt’s) or repeating what is said to them (echolalia). A child may talk at length about their own topic of interest, yet be unable to create new utterances to communicate what they really want to say. 

In reality, AAC can benefit a wide spectrum of individuals with diverse communication abilities. As highlighted by Light et al. (2019), AAC offers opportunities for individuals with complex communication needs to enhance their communication and participation, regardless of their speech abilities. It is a flexible tool that can complement existing communication methods as well as providing an alternative communication method in challenging social situations. 


Will AAC be too difficult for my child?

With appropriate guidance and reinforcement, children can quickly grasp AAC systems and integrate them into their daily routines. We should not limit a child based on perceived cognitive ability. Boesh & Da Fonte (2018), advise families and therapists to select an appropriate AAC system and provide consistent support and modelling. When a communication partner regularly models the use of a child’s communication system they are using the least dangerous assumption. 

By adopting a growth mindset and believing that a child will be able to understand and in time use this method of communication. The ‘least dangerous assumption’ means we proceed with the plan that, if we are incorrect about a child’s ability, we will cause the least damage to the child. 

In short there is no harm in giving AAC a go. 


Isn’t my child too young for AAC? 

Often therapists will explore multiple methods to support your child’s natural speech before turning to AAC. Part of this could be the cost involved in purchasing an appropriate AAC system. Learning to use an AAC system is similar to learning a new language. Our brains have the ability to absorb new information and learn new skills more easily when we are young. 

“By 18 months a baby has heard 4,380 hours of oral language. Yet, if AAC learners only see symbols modelled for communication twice per week for 20-30 minutes, it will take 84 years for them to have the same exposure to aided language as an 18 month old has of spoken language”. (Rachel Korsten, 2011)

It is essential for families and professionals to recognise the value of AAC as an early intervention tool rather than only after exhausting every other option (and perhaps themselves!). 


My friend's son uses AAC on his iPad. Will that work for my son too? 

Each person using AAC is unique, with distinct communication needs, preferences, and abilities. What works for one individual may not work for another. 

Therefore, it's crucial for families to work closely with AAC professionals to tailor solutions that suit their child's specific requirements. Things to consider during the selection process are;


·       How are they communicating now? 

·       Can they read? 

·       If going for a symbolised vocabulary, what symbol set might work best? 

·       Are there any physical or sensory (vision, hearing) challenges to consider?

·       Who will fund and what is the budget?


Breaking down these common concerns surrounding AAC is crucial for empowering families like yours who are new to using AAC with their non-speaking children. By dispelling misconceptions and highlighting the benefits of AAC, you can make informed decisions and provide effective support for your child’s communication development journey. With the right resources, guidance, and understanding, AAC can open doors to enhanced communication, participation, and overall quality of life for individuals with complex communication needs. 


So, if you are seeking to foster deeper connections with your non-speaking child, look no further! Communication-Angel is here for you! We specialise in educating and empowering parents and teachers of non-speaking children. Unlike speech and language therapists who have little time to provide support beyond the funding of a communication system, Communication-Angel focuses on the successful implementation of communication systems through empowering communication partners. We offer consultations, assessments, workshops and in school coaching. 


Thanks Melanie for explaining AAC and helping us to understand the benefits of it for those with a disability!


If AAC is of interest to you, contact Melanie on melanie@communication-angel.com  to book your free 30 minute consultation. 


References:

Berkowitz, S. Make The Connection: A practical guide to parents and professionals for teaching the nonverbal child to communicate - with AAC. Herding Cats Press. 2019. 

Boesh, M. & Da Fonte, M, A. Effective Augmentative and Alternative Communication Practices: A Handbook for School-Based Practitioners. Routledge; 2018. 

Drager K, Light J, McNaughton D. Effects of AAC interventions on communication and language for young children with complex communication needs. J Pediatr Rehabil Med. 2010;3(4):303-10. doi: 10.3233/PRM-2010-0141. PMID: 21791864. 

Light, J., McNaughton, D., Beukelman, D., Fager, S. K., Fried-Oken, M., Jakobs, T., & Jakobs, E. (2019). Challenges and opportunities in augmentative and alternative communication: Research and technology development to enhance communication and participation for individuals with complex communication needs. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 35(1), 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1080/07434618.2018.1556732 

Soto G & Zangari C. Practically Speaking Language, Literacy, and Academic Development for Students with AAC Needs. Brookes; 2009.

 

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