Different AAC Devices for Students with Autism

Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) devices are crucial tools designed to support individuals with significant speech or language impairments.  Many people immediately jump to thinking these are high tech devices, but there is actually a wide range of systems that can be used with students. Each student is an individual, so it is important to know the options out there so you can help support your students getting the one that will best support them.

These devices range from simple picture boards to sophisticated speech-generating devices. For autistic children, who often lack communication skills or have a delayed language development, AAC devices can be particularly transformative. Many students with autism struggle with verbal communication, which can impact their ability to participate fully in classroom activities and social interactions. 

By offering alternative means of communication, AAC devices help bridge this gap, playing a crucial role in enabling students to convey their needs, thoughts, and feelings more effectively. This enhanced ability to communicate not only improves their learning experience but also fosters greater independence and social engagement, ultimately contributing to their overall development and success in the educational environment. 

Disclosure: I am not an SLP, and you should consult the speech therapist who works closest with your student to determine the best aac device to use. However, as educators, it is important that we have a basic understanding of common types of aac devices and their various benefits and drawbacks. 

Understanding AAC Devices

AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) devices are tools and technologies designed to assist individuals who have significant difficulties with verbal communication. These devices provide alternative methods for expressing thoughts, individual needs or wants, and ideas. It allows people to engage in effective communication when they may otherwise struggle to convey their messages. Examples of AAC devices include speech-generating devices, communication boards, and specialized apps designed to facilitate communication. Let’s break this down a bit further. (more examples of types of AAC devices are further down as well)

Types of AAC Devices

Low-tech options

  • Picture Cards: Simple, portable cards with images representing words or phrases that can be used to communicate basic needs and responses. Examples may be a simple break card that students can hold up when they are feeling overwhelmed and need a break from doing their work. You can check out break cards and get your own here.
  • Communication Boards: Boards with a collection of symbols or pictures that users can point to in order to convey their messages. These boards can be customized to suit individual preferences and needs. They can be one page or an entire book for the students. Again, these low-tech aac devices should be set up for the student’s individual needs. 

High-tech options:

  • There are a variety of high-tech aac devices out there. Please note that there are always new and improved ones, so be sure to do your research to find the one that is best for your student. Below are some examples.
    • Tobii Dynavox with TD Snap: One of my favorites because it focuses on the use of core vocabulary. This is a great way to teach students who use an aac system how to use it effectively. You can learn more about core vocabulary here.
    • ProLoQuo: An app for an iPad or other decide which means that is able to be used on an existing device if needed. You can build up vocabulary as the learner grows, change the size of icons, and customize it as needed.
    • PRC-Saltillo with LAMP Words: If you want to focus on LAMP, this is a great option for you!

How AAC Devices Work

AAC devices operate by providing alternative methods for users to express themselves when verbal speech is not possible or practical. Low-tech devices, such as picture cards and communication boards, allow users to point to or select images that represent words or phrases. These can be taught using a system called the picture exchange communication system (PECS). (Please note the physical materials are not ‘PECS’ as this is an entire system, not materials- something that is often misunderstood). 

This method is straightforward and requires minimal financial roadblocks, making it accessible for many users. However, it has its limitations due to only having a set number of words available for the student to choose from. It can be a valuable tool when first starting out or when you are waiting to get access to a higher tech one.

High-tech devices, on the other hand, utilize advanced technology to generate speech or text based on user input. For instance, speech-generating devices convert typed or selected words into spoken language, enabling users to communicate verbally. These devices often include touch screens, voice recognition, and customizable interfaces to accommodate individual preferences and needs. Communication apps on tablets offer similar functionalities, providing a portable and versatile solution for users. Overall, AAC devices empower individuals with communication impairments to interact more effectively with others, enhancing their ability to participate in everyday activities and social interactions.

Benefits of AAC Devices for Students with Autism

Enhancing Communication

Obviously, the first and more important benefit of any AAC system is that they allow students to express their needs, wants, and thoughts more effectively. Many students who have the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder will face challenges in verbal communication, which can lead to frustration and behavioral issues. Which is completely understandable, if I could not convey that I was hungry, thirsty, or talk to my best friend I would definitely be upset and have some behaviors.

By providing alternative methods of communication, such as picture cards, communication boards, or speech-generating devices, AAC tools allow these students to convey their messages clearly and efficiently. This enhanced ability to communicate not only reduces frustration but also improves overall emotional well-being, as students feel more understood and connected to those around them.

It is important to always remember that AAC users should be using their devices for more than just requesting. Often times it is where students get stuck because it is easy- they request something and they get it. However, we use our language for more than just requests. We use it for commenting, asking questions, engaging in back and forth dialogue. We need to be teaching students skills to be able to do this as well.

Promoting Independence

One of the significant benefits of AAC devices is their ability to foster self-advocacy and independence among students with autism. With the help of AAC tools, students can make choices, express preferences, and communicate their needs without relying solely on others or guessing at what they need or want. 

This independence empowers students to take control of their own lives and make decisions that affect their daily routines. Students can make choices about their academics, what they eat, their rewards, what game to play and more. They can even express how they feel better to get support from others. By promoting self-advocacy, AAC devices help students build confidence and develop essential life skills that will serve them well beyond the classroom.

Improving Social Interactions

AAC devices also facilitate social interactions between peers and teachers, which is often a challenging area for students with autism. Communication barriers can hinder the ability to form and maintain friendships, leading to social isolation. The use of aac devices bridge this gap by providing students with the means to participate in conversations, share their thoughts, and interact more naturally with those around them. As a result, students with autism can develop stronger social connections, feel more included in group activities, and improve their overall social skills. As a result this also supports their mental health!

Supporting Academic Success

The impact of AAC devices on academic participation and learning is profound. In a classroom setting, the ability to communicate effectively is crucial for engaging with lessons, asking questions, and demonstrating knowledge. AAC devices enable students with autism to participate more fully in academic activities, access curriculum content, and interact with teachers and classmates. This increased participation not only enhances their learning experience but also leads to better educational outcomes. It will also decrease behaviors because when students are more engaged, they are by default, going to engage in less off task or avoidant behaviors. 

There are so many benefits to using AAC devices, which is why it is important for educators to learn about them even if they are not a speech therapist. 

Selecting the Right AAC Device

As special ed teachers, we will NOT be recommending devices. That is best and should be left to the professionals. However, I think understanding that it is not a process that you think a student needs a device and BAM they get one.  There are several things that are required, and may take time before a student gets their dedicated device.

First off, there needs to be an individualized assessment. Students need to be assessed to see how they respond and interact to different types of programs and devices. Sometimes this will be through a variety, and sometimes they find one that works well right off the bat!

Then, there may need to be others involved. Again, the speech therapist will be taking the lead but they may need to include someone else who is a specialist in just assistive technology. (Some schools have these roles, some do not). They also may need to consider talked to occupational therapists due to the lack of fine motor skills. 

Finally, there has to be a trial period. It is important to trial different devices and making necessary adjustments based on feedback. This can take some time and is different depending on insurance companies. 

High-Tech AAC Device Examples

  • Proloquo2Go:A customizable app that provides a wide range of symbols and vocabulary for non-verbal individuals.
    • Benefits: There are so many different ways to customize. This includes the voice feature, where words are stored, size, images of buttons and more. Also can be used on a variety of devices. 
    • Drawbacks: Due to the amount of customization abilities it can be frustrating where to find the exact word the aac user is looking for.
  • TouchChat:An app offering both symbol-based and text-based communication options with extensive customization.
    • Benefits: Many customization options with this app as well. It is also a bit cheaper than some other options.
    • Drawbacks: There is a bit of a learning curve with learning how to personalize it.
  • LAMP Words for Life:Based on Language Acquisition through Motor Planning (LAMP) principles, designed for individuals with autism.
    • Benefits: The way it is set up has taken motor planning into consideration. You can customize it as needed as well.
    • Drawbacks: Although you can customize, it is more limited than other options. Some have had difficulty with customer support as well.
  • Tobii Dynavox with TD Snap: This is more than just a communication device, in my opinion.
    • Benefits: There are options for visual supports such as mini schedules and timers. There is a google assistant piece embedded within it as well. I also love the quick fires which are often used phrases to make communication even easier. They have other options as well that can support eye gazing for individuals who need that.
    • Drawbacks: This could be a lot to learn if it is the students first time using a device. 
  • NovaChat:Portable speech-generating devices with multiple vocabulary options and customization features. This is not an app
    • Benefits: Because it is an entire device and not an app, it is completely dedicated to communication instead of being used for other things, which unfortunately happens. Please note that communication devices should be dedicated wholly to communicating and not to using them for watching videos or playing games. Has a durable case for students that may engage in behaviors that could cause it to break.
    • Drawbacks: If the device breaks, it isn’t as easy as downloading the app to a new iPad to get it running again.
  • Talkitt:A wearable device that translates unintelligible pronunciation into clear speech.
    • Benefits: Learns the way the student speaks to be able to make them more understandable for an untrained listener. Helps learners get their ideas acrossed easier.
    • Drawbacks: If students are not able to expressively think or say the word, they may have trouble communicating their desires still. This would be best for someone who is able to be more verbal but difficult to understand.

Implementing AAC Devices in the Classroom

Now that your student has a device, you may be wondering how in the world you are going to support them- especially when you didn’t go to school for speech. However, students cannot learn to be proficient in using their AAC device if they only use it in the therapy room. Here are some easy ways to start implementing the use of AAC devices. If you want a jumpstart on starting to use this in your classroom, grab this freebie to learn more!

Integrating AAC into Daily Routines

The easiest way to start something is to integrate it into what you are already doing. So where can you implement it into your daily routines? 

  • You could print off a large communication board and model it during morning meeting.
  • Model using it during a read aloud
  • Teach specific core vocabulary words during small or individual reading groups (Read more on how to do that here).

Teacher and Staff Training

It is so important to get the entire team on board. This means teaching staff how to model using the device, and more importantly how to model without expectation. We want our students to see adults using their device and modeling it, not always being asked to use the device to mimic what they just did. This can be a challenging thing for many adults, so it should be part of the staff training.

Another part of staff training should be to explain that it is okay that they don’t know where the exact word is. They can model looking for the word they are searching for. When doing this it is important that they are talking aloud their thought process. This helps students learn where they can find new words and what they can be thinking about to search for them.

Create an AAC-Friendly Environment

If you are going to focus on a core word a week, try to print off these images and paste them around the room where appropriate. For example, open on the door knob. Then you can slowly build up to have more as you teach more.

You can also print a large communication board and model it. It is okay if it does not match all of your learners’ exact devices. Showing that others use communication boards to communicate it very empowering for students as well.

Talk about it! Neurotypical students are probably interested in the students’ alternative communication systems. You can explain how everyone has different needs in your classroom and that student needs additional help communicating. Most times, students are excited to share their device with others and want to show them what they have to say!

Overcoming Challenges and Barriers

Leaving the device

One of the significant challenges in using AAC devices is the potential for leaving the device. This could mean at home, in the classroom when they leave, or even a their desk when they go to the carpet. This should happen for a variety of reasons such as frustration, lack of understanding, or insufficient training. They may not see the value yet in it either. To overcome this barrier, it is crucial to ensure that students receive comprehensive and ongoing training on how to use their AAC devices effectively. They need to be encouraged to take responsibility for their device and carry it with them from place to place. 

Ensuring Consistency and Support

Consistency in the use of AAC devices across different environments—home, school, and community settings—is essential for the success of students with autism. It is important that everyone involved in the student’s life, including family members, educators, and caregivers, is on the same page regarding the use of the AAC device. Regular communication and collaboration among these parties can ensure that the student receives consistent support and encouragement.  

If you are doing a word of the week, be sure to communicate that with the entire team whether you have team meetings or a brief email. I also find that providing some ideas on how to use the word helps adults in making sure they are using the device with the students as well.

Establishing routines that incorporate the AAC device in various settings can help reinforce its use and make it an integral part of the student’s communication strategy. Providing ongoing training and resources for all involved can further support this consistency. 

Encouraging Peer Support and Understanding

Fostering an inclusive environment where peers understand and support the use of AAC devices is crucial for the social integration of students with autism. Educators can play a key role in educating students about AAC devices and their importance in helping their classmates communicate. This can be done through classroom discussions, demonstrations, and interactive activities that involve the use of AAC tools. 

You can encourage peers to be involved in creating opportunities for students to practice communication with their peers using AAC devices, thereby normalizing their use and promoting empathy and understanding. You can do this by explaining that sometimes they need to give more wait time to allow their friend to find the word they are looking for. Also answering questions they may have openly and honestly. It will depend on the age and ability of your students but if they are interested and able, allowing them to talk about it for themselves would be the best case scenario.

In summary, AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) devices are invaluable tools that support the diverse communication needs of students with autism. These devices, range from low-tech picture cards to high-tech speech-generating devices, and significantly enhance students’ ability to express their needs, wants, and thoughts. By promoting independence, improving social interactions, and supporting academic success, AAC devices play a critical role in the educational and personal development of students with autism.

We also discussed strategies to overcome common challenges associated with AAC devices, such as leaving their device and the need for consistent use across various settings. Ensuring that everyone involved in the student’s life is well-informed and supportive can make a substantial difference. Additionally, fostering an inclusive environment where peers understand and embrace the use of AAC devices can significantly enhance social integration for students with autism.

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