Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) refers to all the ways we can communicate without talking, such as facial expressions, gestures, writing, photos, sign language and high-tech devices.

For individuals with speech and language disabilities, these forms of communication can supplement or replace spoken language. Learning to use AAC proficiently can be like learning a new language. It takes lots of practice and repeated exposure. For beginning AAC users, the best thing families can do is model use of the AAC system at home. Check out the information below about modeling, including ideas about what and when to model.

Modeling use of the AAC system as you talk with the AAC user is so important!

Just as kids learning to use spoken words hear language for a long time before saying their first words, AAC users need to hear/see their system being used to learn how it works.

For beginning AAC users, aim to model use of the AAC system much more often than you expect the AAC user to use the system. Modeling the AAC system helps:

  • teach the meaning of new vocabulary
  • how to combine words into phrases
  • how to navigate the device
  • how to repair conversation breakdowns

Modeling: Where To Begin

To model, use the AAC system simultaneously as you talk or augment some of your words with the system. If the AAC user uses sign language or gestures, use signs and gestures as you talk. If the AAC user uses a high-tech device, push buttons on the device as you talk. You can select a few words that most represent your message.

  • For example, while eating dinner you might say aloud, “This pasta is really good. I want some more!” while pushing the buttons, “good + want + more” on the device.

You do not have to say everything with the AAC system. Single word messages or short phrases are often a great place to start! When modeling, the AAC user does not need to repeat your message.

A small set of words, referred to as core words, make up most of the words speakers use day to day. Examples of core words include:

  • common verbs (i.e., go, put)
  • pronouns (i.e., mine, it)
  • question words (i.e., where, who)
  • interjections (i.e., uh-oh)

Core Words

Core words are powerful to model and learn because they can be used across many activities and environments to create novel messages.

  • For example, we can communicate “go” when we are getting in the car to go somewhere, when we want to be pushed on the swing or when we comment on a fire truck going by quickly.

One way to increase modeling of AAC at home may be to select a few core words and try to use those core words several times across the day.

To model at home, you can also think about different communicative intents. We use language for so many purposes besides requesting things! We can comment on things happening around us, talk about what we like/do not like, protest, talk about how we are feeling and ask questions.

You can make AAC exciting by using fun words, too! You can model silly sound effects and words on the device, like “bummer” or “yuck.” Although it is perhaps less intuitive with AAC, being silly with language can be motivating and build social closeness for individuals and their conversation partners.

Multi-Step Routines

Multi-step routines, such as getting winter clothes on or eating dinner, can be great times to learn language and model AAC systems. Because we do these routines every day, individuals gain repeated exposure to the words within these routines. There are also lots of different kinds of words within these routines. When getting winter clothes on for example, we would likely say words that are:

  • nouns (boots, coat)
  • adjectives (warm, blue)
  • pronouns (mine, yours)
  • concepts (on, up), etc.

Sometimes picking out one home routine to model AAC during can be a great first step towards increasing AAC use! Try modeling a single word or a short phrase for a few steps of the routine.

Use Video!

If modeling in the moment is tough or if you are concerned the AAC user is not watching you model, you can try making videos of yourself using the AAC system. Sometimes watching short videos of messages shared with a communication system can be motivating.

  • For example, you can make a short video saying, “I’m going to be put my coat on,” while pushing on a device or signing, “put + on.” You and the AAC user can watch the video before getting ready to go outside.

Use More Than The Device

Communication is most successful when individuals use everything available to share messages, including gestures, vocalizations and things in the environment. You can model gestures, such as pointing or shaking your head yes/no. You can point at visual schedules or calendars when sharing about things that already happened or are going to happen. You can take pictures together and then model pointing at the photographs to share about the experiences.

Mistakes Are Allowed

As a modeler of the AAC system, it is okay to make mistakes or not know the location of desired buttons. AAC is messy and communication breakdowns happen! You can model deleting incorrect words from the message bar or shaking your head “no” to share there was a communication breakdown. You can also show how to communicate a message that is not available with the AAC system. Is there another word on the AAC system that is similar? Can you use pointing or other gestures to communicate the message a different way?

Modeling AAC often requires patience and problem solving! As a therapist, there are times when it goes well and times when it is really tricky. Sometimes there are not enough hands to juggle the AAC device, juggle the activity and help the AAC user attend. I imagine this is how it feels to model AAC at home at times, too.

In the business of everyday life, especially the lives of families of individuals with disabilities, modeling AAC can be tough. But it is so important! We can set small and attainable goals for home modeling and continue to celebrate the communication victories. For an additional resource, check out this great video!

Written By:
Norah Garrity, MS, CCC-SLP
Speech and Language Pathologist