Augmentative and alternative communication

Methods of Augmentative and alternative communication

Due to their handicaps, most children who attend our school are not capable of communicating through speech or do so only to a limited extent. And so we must find ways of communicating with our pupils so that they will be able to express their feelings and wishes. In this, we are aided by the methods of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), which help us to temporarily or permanently compensate for impairments in communicating.

Augmentative means that these methods merely support existing systems of communicating or augment regular communication that others may find difficult to understand.

Alternative systems fully replace the spoken word.

When building augmentative and alternative systems of communicating, we try to make use of the pupil’s full range of abilities. Communicating should be as natural as possible.

AAC includes systems that use communication aids as well as those that don’t.

Systems without aids makes use of targeted eye movements, facial expressions, body language, and hand signals (sign language, MAKATON). These systems involve a combination of speech with movement, which is important for creating perceptual-motor memory traces and also helps to improve word recall. Body language and signs can be used immediately and are also good for communicating across distances. They are suitable for children with hearing, visual and mental impairments but without any greater physical disabilities. They can also be used for pupils with autism spectrum disorders.

At our school, the most frequently used aids include objects, photographs, images and pictograms, communication boards, technical aids with voice output, computers and recently also tablet computers. Which of these systems is used depends on the child’s capabilities.

Objects are three-dimensional symbols that can be handled, are easily identifiable, and can be touched. They are used for pupils with severe mental retardation, visual impairments, autism, or multiple handicaps. Disadvantages include the difficulty of transporting them, their inability to express abstract concepts, and overlapping meanings.

Photographs are the most realistic two-dimensional representations of reality. They are more easily read than pictures and are a preliminary stage to the world of symbols. They can be highly motivating because children see familiar people, objects, and activities. One slight disadvantage is the need to constantly carry a camera around.

Images and pictograms help to understand the structure of an environment, sequences of events, and are suitable for expressing abstract concepts.

Pictures and photographs can be compiled into communication boards that are put together according to the specific needs of the child. They can take various forms and sizes and can be pointed at with one’s fingers, fist or eyes, or using a laser pointer. The board should reflect the user’s personality, age, and interests, and should always be at hand. The child should be able to ask for it.

Aids with voice output are devices with a limited number of commands, depending on the type. We make frequent use of the BIGmack and Step-by-Step speech generators, which are popular due to their ease of use. The voice output is usually recorded by the teacher. The speech generator can be augmented by pictures or photographs.

Computers and tablet computers have the advantage that the contents of the boards can be easily changed and they can be used for teaching. Computers can be fitted with special keyboards and touchpads for easier use.

AAC helps children who cannot speak engage in meaningful communication with their surroundings. In this way, the children can express their wishes and don’t have to rely on the intuition of others. For children who are predisposed to speech, AAC systems can help them develop their speaking abilities. The visuals help them remember a given word and fix it in their memory. With time, they will be able to choose which words to use without the time-consuming task of looking for the right picture.

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