Augmentative and Alternative Communication: Part 2

Last week we discussed augmentative and alternative communication (AAC); means of communication, other than speech, which are used by many individuals who have lost the ability to communicate by conventional means. Today we’ll take a look at some of the more common types of AAC devices available.

AAC devices cover a wide range of types and levels of technology, ranging from something as high-tech as theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking’s cheek-operated, text-predictive electronic voice synthesizer, to something as simple as a pen and paper. However, these devices can be separated into groups based on two basic aspects: how the devices are operated by the user, and how thoughts and ideas are represented to others.

AAC operation can be divided into two broad categories: direct selection and scanning. Direct selection allows an individual to choose a word, picture or letter from a presented series by directly pointing to it. The ways in which this is accomplished are as varied as the people who use these devices. Those who are able may simply use their finger or other body part. Those with more involved physical impairments need to use more novel levels of indicating their choice. This can include something as simple as a stick placed in the mouth or attached to headgear, or something as technologically involved as a beam of light or a device that can track eye movement.

Scanning is a slightly different process. Rather than directly indicating a choice, choices are presented and highlighted, one at a time. This is often done with electronic devices in which options are individually lit up. When the user’s desired choice is highlighted, he or she activates a switch to select that choice. As with direct selection, the type of switch used is based on the physical abilities and limitations of the user. Switches may be operated with a finger, head movement, or even a blink of an eye.

No matter how an AAC device is operated, users often benefit from the services of a speech-language pathologist. The speech therapist will help the user select the type of device that is right for them, and then set up therapy helping them to use the device in the most efficient, socially-friendly way possible.

Stay tuned: next week we’ll continue our discussion and look into the different ways in which AAC devices present the thoughts and ideas of the user to others.

Let us know what you think. Do you or someone you love use augmentative and alternative communication? How has the device affected your life? Join the conversation by sharing your story below in the comments section.

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