Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) is the term used to describe various methods of communication that can ‘add-on’ to speech and are used to get around problems with ordinary speech.
AAC includes simple systems such as pictures, gestures and pointing, as well as more complex techniques involving powerful computer technology.
Some kinds of AAC are actually part of everyone's communication, for example: waving goodbye; giving a 'thumbs up' instead of speaking; pointing to a picture or gesturing in a foreign country. However, some people have to rely on AAC most of the time.
Different types of AAC
- No-tech communication does not involve any additional equipment - hence it is sometimes referred to as 'unaided communication'. Examples are: body language, gestures, pointing, eye pointing, facial expressions, vocalisations, signing.
For more details see: Getting started: communication without technology.
- Low-tech communication systems do not need a battery to function and include: pen and paper to write messages or draw; alphabet and word boards; communication charts or books with pictures, photos and symbols; particular objects used to stand for what the person needs to understand or say. This is sometimes referred to as 'aided communication' because additional equipment is required.
- High-tech communication systems need power from a battery or mains. Most of them speak and/or produce text. They range from simple buttons or pages that speak when touched, to very sophisticated systems. Some high-tech communication systems are based on familiar equipment such as mobile devices, tablets and laptops, others use equipment specially designed to support communication. This is sometimes referred to as 'aided communication' because additional equipment is required.
Frequently asked questions
What reading and spelling skills are needed?
Some people use spelling to create messages, but good reading and spelling skills are not essential for AAC because there are powerful systems based on using symbols, pictures, photos or objects instead.
What is the best kind of AAC system to use?
There is no ‘best’ type of AAC system. Each system has its own pros and cons; the most suitable one for an individual will depend on their abilities, needs and personal preferences. Many people have more than one AAC method, and choose which to use depending on the listener and the particular situation.
What about people who can’t press keys?
There are lots of solutions for people who would have difficulty physically operating a piece of equipment. Accessibility options include a keyguard, a pointer, a switch to control a scanning system or even an eye gaze controller. For more details, see Access methods: switches, keyboards and eye-gaze.
How do people get the AAC system that they need?
There are many options so it is a good idea to get specialist advice in order to identify the most appropriate AAC system or systems. The starting point is usually to contact the local speech and language therapy service. They may be able to help, or may refer on to a specialist AAC service (see our List of AAC Assessment Services).