What is augmentative and alternative communication?

Communication is at the core of everything we do – to express needs and desires and to build relationships.

Vision provides meaning to language and that’s why children with low or no vision may struggle with their speech and language development. They don’t have the same opportunity as others to observe objects or actions and pair it with language.

For children with vision impairment and communication difficulties, augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) is a tool to help express themselves.

What is augmentative and alternative communication and how does it help? To understand, it’s best to break it down.

Augment means to enhance, for example, augmenting speech by using body language, gestures and pointing.

Alternative means doing something differently.

Communication is sending and receiving messages to and from other people.

High-tech and low-tech AAC

High-tech AAC uses electronic devices and advanced technology for communication purposes. These are complex and require electricity and batteries and can include:

  • Tablet-based apps. There are numerous AAC applications that turn devices into powerful communication tools with customised grids and predictive texts.
  • Most high-tech devices have speech-generating capability, with digitilised speech output.
  • Eye-gaze systems that use eye-tracking technology so someone can communicate by directing their gaze at symbols or buttons on a screen.

Low-tech AAC refers to communications aids that do not require advanced electronic technology. Simpler and easier to use, they include:

  • Communication boards. Physical boards with pictures or symbols that people can point to in order to convey messages.
  • Alphabet or letter boards. Through pointing actions, an individual can spell words or sentences.
  • Communication books. Similar to boards, but these are books. Individuals can point at symbols or pictures to communicate.

Low-tech augmentative and alternative communication solution for clients

A young person who has no functional vision and limited verbal skills could benefit from augmentative and alternative communication. Like the low-tech AAC device called a Go Talk 9 made by Attainment (link opens in new window) which is portable, lightweight and robust. It has nine cells (hence the name) with three smaller ones on top, making twelve in total on each side of the device.

Blake and Speech Pathologist Helena sit around a table with a puzle and his Go Talk 9
Go Talk 9 with speech output helps children to communicate

These cells are static raised message keys so kids can ‘talk’ by pressing a key which has a pre-recorded announcement. Over time, these keys will incorporate Braille. It is suitable for people with vision impairment because of the voice output and tactile properties on each defined key.

The messages on the keys remain in the same area. The child can find them easily through touch. They are simple phrases, so they can convey their thoughts, emotions and needs. Pressing the keys also helps to develop finger isolation skills to promote fine motor dexterity. This device can be a great tool for both a Speech Pathologist and an Occupational Therapist.

An example of messages could include:

  • I am hungry
  • Stop, I don’t like this
  • I am feeling tired
  • I want to go outside

VisAbility Speech Pathologist Helena explains why this particular AAC device is beneficial.

“Children get frustrated because we can’t understand their needs. Introducing a low-tech tactile audio device, to help them communicate with us, becomes a very useful tool. There are different devices that can be tailored to age and specific requirements, but the Go Talk 9 is simple and functional,” she explains.

Trialling the GoTalk 

Image shows OT Paige looking at the Go Talk 9 with Blake.
Children can also use the device with an OT

For anyone with vision impairment or other disabilities, a low-tech AAC device could be beneficial because:

  1.  It incorporates tactile and auditory feedback. The user can feel the buttons and hear the spoken messages.
  2. The layout is straightforward, making it simple and easy to use without requiring too much interaction.
  3. Personalised recorded messages match the needs and preferences of each child.
  4. It offers a child greater independence. The portable AAC device reduces time they have to rely on others to interpret and convey messages.
  5. It makes it easier for a child to improve their communication skills and participate in social interactions.

Funding for Blake’s device is through the NDIS and core support consumables budget.

How to get support

If your child has a diagnosis of vision impairment, our Speech Pathology team will work with your child to promote better speech, language and communication skills.

Our qualified therapists can visit your home or school for appointments. Alternatively, you can make an appointment at our base in Victoria Park. Complete the form below to find out what low vision services and support we can provide to you both now and into the future.

There are also a number of low vision support groups within Perth and across the state, which can connect you with like-minded people to build friendships and offer support.

If you are a provider and wish to refer a client, please use our low vision medical certificate (online referral form) to make your referral.

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