What is AAC?

Deidra Darst is a speech language pathologist, autism mom, and State Director of the Mountaineer Autism Project.

What is AAC?

AAC stands for “augmentative/alternative communication.”

I bet you already know a little about AAC!  AAC is basically anything that you use to communicate that isn’t speaking. Writing, signing, gesturing, facial expressions, picture exchange, and speech-generating devices are examples of AAC.

Who Needs AAC?

AAC helps many different people, including those with autism.  Some children have some speech, but still needs some extra help to communicate more effectively.  They may need “augmentative” communication to add to their verbal communication.  Your child may be nonverbal.  In that case, we would be looking at “alternative” communication as another communication option.

What Are AAC Options?

Thankfully, we live in a time that allows us to have numerous AAC options.  We divide AAC into two main categories:  unaided and aided.

Unaided AAC requires nothing “extra.”  This could be using facial expressions, gestures, or sign language.  Unaided requires nothing more than yourself!

Aided AAC would mean that a tool of some sort is required.  This could be low-tech or high-tech.  A low-tech option might include writing with pen and paper or using a picture exchange system.  A high-tech option would be using an iPad with a communication app.

But I Want My Child to Talk

Many parents are apprehensive to introduce AAC to their child.  These are two very common things I hear from families in regard to AAC:

“…But I want my kid to talk.  She won’t talk if we do this.”

“I don’t think he’s ready for anything like that, it seems too complicated.”

First of all, research shows us that AAC actually promotes verbal communication and improves language skills.  I have personally seen this with my own son, who uses a high-tech AAC device.  Last month, he was excited to see a train.  He used his device to say, “train,” then he immediately turned to me and verbally said, “train.”  The AAC device by its very function provides a model for the user!

My son was able to participate in Trick-or-Treat this year because he used his device to communicate!

Everyone has wants and needs to communicate.  Imagine going through your whole day without being able to say what you want.   Oh, and you cannot share your thoughts or ideas with anyone either.  You can’t say, “I love you,” or “my tummy hurts.”  You can’t share that funny story from your day, nor can you ask, “What’s for dinner tonight?”  I imagine that would be very frustrating.  Research shows us that providing AAC options actually decreases frustration – because communication is powerful!   

Another great thing that research tells us is that we don’t have to wait for specific prelinguistic skills or wait for a certain age to introduce AAC.  If your child needs it now, we can introduce it right now!  We should always be assuming that a child has the ability to communicate, we just need to find them a mode of communication.

I encourage all of you to see AAC for what it is – communication. It doesn’t matter how we communicate, what matters is that communication is an option.  If you can speak, good for you! But for many people, speaking is difficult, or even impossible. I am so thankful that we live in an age where we have so many communication options available to us and those we love.

Who Can Help Us?

If you feel that your child needs an alternative means of communication – or an additional means of communication – you need to find a professional.  Speech language pathologists (SLPs) can assess your child’s current communication abilities and work with you to determine his or her needs.  Every child is different, and their needs are unique as well.

Good luck to you on your AAC journey!


American Speech, Language, Hearing Association – AAC

ASHA AAC Practice Portal


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Kasari, C., Kaiser, A., Goods, K., Nietfeld, J., Mathy, P., Landa, R., . . . Almirall, D. (2014). Communication interventions for minimally verbal children with autism: A sequential multiple assignment randomized trial. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 53, 635–646.

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Millar, D. C., Light, J. C., & Schlosser, R. W. (2006). The impact of augmentative and alternative communication intervention on the speech production of individuals with developmental disabilities: A research review. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 49, 248–264.


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