The ability to communicate can be taken for granted. It might be hard to imagine having a limited ability to communicate needs, share feelings, be provided with real choices, or ask questions about the world. Unfortunately, communication is a challenge for many children with autism, which makes autism clinics and treatments such as ABA Therapy so important.  Autism treatments can focus on augmentative and alternative communication (AAC). Numerous alternate communication channels are available outside of speech that fall into the AAC categories, which means every child can be heard in other ways. Offering a child augmentative and alternative communication channels may take some extra work, additional learning, and increased adaptability. However, since communication is a basic human right, the importance of these efforts is evident.

Levels of AAC

As mentioned above, augmentative and alternative communication are communication mediums used in place of speech. The best way to approach AAC is with the mindset that none of these mediums are one size fits all. It is normal for kids to use multiple communications systems across their day. A lot of training and practice is needed for building communication proficiency through the various levels of AAC.

Communication Considerations for Children with Autism

The three levels include low, mid, and high.

  • Low level represents alternative non-speech communication that does not require  technology. Examples of low level AAC are picture exchanges, a static picture board, and sign language.
  • Mid level AAC utilizes technology and also provides voice output. Some examples of this category include single-message phrases, BIGmack, and adapted switches. BIGmack is a single message speech generating device. Adapted switches are programmed to send prerecorded sounds, signals, or messages over a communication system.
  • High level AAC are computerized devices utilizing communication applications. iPads and dedicated speech generating devices (SGD) are examples of high level AAC.

Steps to Build Communicative Competence

The best assumption to make is that children will express themselves when provided with the proper support. While providing AAC communication options is a necessary first step; parents, teachers, and registered behavior therapists (RBT) also need to offer a child with autism ownership of their communication medium. This ownership starts with the child using their preferred communication method. It is important to provide genuine, natural opportunities for a child to communicate. According to Janice Light, PH.D Professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Penn State University, communicative competence highlights the differences between competence in spoken communication and communication using AAC, which happens on several levels.

  • Linguistic competence refers to the receptive and expressive language skills needed to communicate.
  • Social competence relates to teaching a child the process for navigating communication and socialization such as starting, maintaining, and ending conversations.
  • Operational competence is the training a child receives to learn their AAC system, such as knowing how to convey words and phrases or adjusting the system’s volume.
  • Strategic competence is building efficient ways for children to communicate more fully using their AAC system.

Building this communicative competence is important for autism treatment because kids are more likely to demonstrate negative behaviors to demand attention if they’re not being understood. Building these competence levels requires perceptiveness, persistence, and inclusion. Perceptiveness is important because children with autism can rely on non-verbal communication such as actions and body language. Persistence means consistently providing children communication opportunities, even when attempts are unsuccessful. Continued opportunities to communicate will encourage a child to continue trying to respond. Finally, inclusion is ensuring communication is always directed back to a child’s communication device. The best general approach to communicative competence is to prioritize speaking to a child over speaking about a child.

The Do’s and Don’ts Surrounding AAC

There are positive and negative practices for encouraging communication through AAC, which start with the basic premise of ensuring a child’s AAC system is always available to them. Taking away a child’s communication medium due to negative behavior is the equivalent to taking their voice away. Below are some other “do’s” and “don’ts” when it comes to ACC.

  • Practices to do
    • Use your child’s AAC system to talk, to understand how it works and to model communication.
    • Do not set low expectations surrounding your child’s communication ability – always aim high!
    • When conversing with your child, do not rush their response. Wait for them to find the proper response using their AAC.
    • Avoid asking open-ended questions at first.
    • Encourage your child to explore and access the entire vocabulary.
  • Practices not to do
    • When approaching your child’s communication, do not demand prerequisite skills.
    • Do not limit the choices in your child’s AAC system.
    • When communicating with your child, do not do all the talking.
    • Do not ask your child to use their AAC system to answer questions for which you already know the answers.
    • Don’t expect your child to know where to find a word to which they have not been exposed.

Motivating Communication

In theory, motivating communication relies on maximizing opportunities for a child with autism to communicate. This process starts by identifying meaningful and appropriate opportunities to communicate that are natural. It is also important for all parties and partners involved in a child’s life to provide appropriate support for communication. One easy way to accomplish this is for everyone to learn how to use the AAC device. Ensure your child has a voice by providing a framework that allows communication and motivates communication through interests and activities.

We’re Here to Help!

If your child has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, we are here to help by offering personalized autism therapy. Helping Hands Family (HHF) is a growing autism treatment provider in the Northeast. Our team is comprised of autism professionals with decades of clinical experience, including Speech Therapists that can help with communication challenges. We are devoted to delivering customized treatment plans through top-rated programs based on each child’s unique needs. Our programs help kids with autism progress socially and support new ways of learning and interacting with the world!