Imagine what it would be like if you couldn't speak...how would you get a cup of coffee? Phone a friend? Share your ideas at school or work? Tell your parents you love them? Sometimes you canāt communicate everything you want by gestures and pointing. And often communication needs to happen across distance and time. At times like this, people need more powerful ways to communicate.
There are more than 2 million Americans who have significant communication
disabilities and are not able to use their speech to communicate
with others. Augmentative and alternative communication systems were
developed to provide ways for these individuals to communicate at home,
school, work and in the community.
What exactly is AAC?
Augmentative and Alternative Communication, or AAC, is just what it sounds like:
So, AAC means anything that can improve someoneās ability to communicate. This can include things like using a voice output communication aid to talk to a friend, pointing to pictures in a communication book to order at a restaurant, or using a computer to type and send E-mail. But imagine how important these Īalternativesā would be if you couldnāt talk·
Learn more from Sara, a woman who uses AAC...
Learn more from Jon, a man who uses AAC...
Who uses AAC?
Some people, who have communication disabilities, need augmentative communication in their daily lives. For example, people with Cerebral Palsy (CP) are born with problems controlling their speech muscles (e.g. those in the tongue, lips, and vocal cords). Others have difficulties learning speech because of Autism or Down Syndrome, and use AAC to give them more ways to say what they want. Some people may not be able to talk, but that doesnāt mean they donāt have anything to say!
Other people might need to use AAC after a stroke or Traumatic Brain Injury. People who have had strokes and head injuries might find that they canāt speak as well as they could before the accident. In some cases they might have slurred speech (Dysarthria), or they might not be able to coordinate their speech muscles (Apraxia). In other cases, they may have problems with language (Aphasia). People with aphasia might have problems forming sentences, naming things, understanding othersā speech, reading, writing, and even gestures. AAC can help make up for some of these problems.
Some people use AAC because of progressive degenerative disorders such as MS (Multiple Sclerosis), MD (Muscular Dystrophy), Lou Gehrigās Disease or ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), Parkinsonās Disease, MG (Myasthenia Gravis), Locked-In Syndrome and others. They may lose their ability to walk and talk.
What are AAC systems?
AAC systems can include anything and everything that helps someone to get their message across. Think of all the alternatives you could use to send a message - writing and reading, gesturing, pointing to pictures, making facial expressions, vocalizations, e-mail messaging, telephone conversations, typing on a computer, pager messaging, and the list goes on.
Here are some examples:
The specific means of communicating the message can change depending on the situation (e.g. using a telephone to talk to someone at the same point in time when you are in a different place, or writing a letter to someone who will read it at a different point in time, at a different place). This is why people need to have a whole range of means to communicate within their communication system.
But what about speech?
People sometimes worry that augmentative communication will "replace" any natural speech ability. Some worry that the person will "lose" what words and sounds they can produce. Others worry that a child may never learn to speak if we start using other forms of communication before the child starts talking on his or her own.
So is natural speech totally out of the picture? No! Absolutely not! Remember that the first "A" in "AAC" stands for "augmentative" ö it helps enhance or improve. An important principle in AAC is to build upon what natural abilities already exist. Natural speech is always an important part of the whole communication system, but it is not always effective on its own. This is when other forms of communication (like gestures, symbols, or writing) can help to get the message across.
More research needs to be done to determine just what effect AAC has on the development of natural speech. The research so far suggests that natural speech abilities will NOT decline (or get worse) when AAC is used. In fact, the research suggests that many individuals may show improvements in their speech once they start using AAC. If you want to find out more about this issue, you can read a research review by Millar, D., Light, J., and Schlosser, R., 1999.
AAC systems are typically divided into two main types: "unaided" and "aided."
Unaided AAC Systems
Unaided AAC systems refer to any type of communication that occurs naturally, without the use of an aid. Unaided communication can include:
Aided AAC Systems
Aided AAC systems refer to any type of communication that is aided by the use of some sort of tool. Aided communication can include:
Aided AAC systems are typically divided into two more types: "light tech" and "high tech."
Light Tech AAC Systems
Light tech AAC systems use aids for communication, but they do not require computers or other "high tech" equipment. Light tech AAC systems display words or concepts in a static, unchanging form. Some examples of light tech AAC systems include:
High Tech AAC Systems
High tech AAC systems use computers or other "high tech" equipment. High tech systems exist in many forms, and have many features that allow the user to be more independent. However, the more complex the system, the more time and effort it takes to learn how to use the system efficiently. Most high tech AAC systems can produce both "visual output," such as pictures or text messages, as well as "voice output," using recorded or synthesized speech. Here are some examples:
There are many different types of high tech communication systems. To learn more about some specific types, visit the links at the website for the Communication Aid Manufacturer's Association (CAMA) at www.aacproducts.org.
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