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How To Make Life Easier for a Person Who Uses Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC)

Catlaina Vrana By Catlaina Vrana | 10/24/16 8:28 PM | First Person Autism | 2 Comments

As an autistic person, I am very familiar with AAC. I use it, and I am around others who use it too. Because it is AAC awareness month, I thought this was a good opportunity to write about it.

So, first off, what exactly is AAC?

AAC stands for Augmentative and Alternative Communication. AAC is a different, but similar, way of expressing needs without vocalization.

There are many different reasons why someone might communicate with AAC. Some people may have trouble hearing, some people may have difficulty controlling their muscles to form words, and some people may have a language/communication disorder, like autism. 

aac-device-close-up 2.pngFor someone who is autistic, AAC acts as a sort of ‘bridge’ of communication. For example, my AAC is my tablet. It has ‘buttons’ that speak when you press them. The buttons have both a symbol and a label in words. When trying to communicate, it is easier for me to express myself by pressing a button with a symbol that matches the picture in my head, rather than always translating my thoughts into words.

There are three general types of AAC. There is ‘no-tech’ AAC, which includes sign language and gestures. This is probably the most recognized form of AAC. There is also ‘low-tech” AAC, which would be something like a picture symbols (PECS) book, pencil and paper, or a letter board. Then there is ‘high-tech’ AAC, which would be an app on a tablet, or a device that is entirely made for communication- these are typically complex and expensive.

With interacting with a person who uses AAC, it is helpful to keep some respectful tips in mind:

  • Speak directly to the person, not their translator

This tip is good to keep in mind, especially when interacting with someone who communicates via sign language or gestures. While I am not personally affected by this (I’m autistic, I barely look at people at all), I imagine that it would be very annoying to have a conversation with someone who only talked to the person beside you.

  • Don’t touch their device

An AAC device is pretty much the equivalent to someone’s voice. When someone touches my device without my permission, I get pretty anxious. If I’m in a situation where I am relying on my AAC, it is frustrating for me to try to communicate when someone is busy playing with it. It’s not fun or a game to me- it is assistive technology.

  • Wait until they are finished typing to respond

I experience this problem a lot in school. Sometimes I have a two-part answer to a question, and the teacher will respond and walk away from my desk before I am finished typing. Please try to be patient- AAC is definitely a slower process of communication, but be sure to give someone who uses AAC the same chance to voice their thoughts as their non-disabled peers.

  • Don’t mimic their way of communicating

aac-device-in-use.pngIf someone uses sign language, and you only know some of the letters, please don’t try to sign to them. If someone uses picture cards to communicate, please do not try to exchange their picture cards with them (unless, of course, you are their therapist). If you have the ability to speak verbally, do so! You have the right to be yourself in the conversation, just like I have the right to be myself!


For more information for teachers using AAC in their classroom see: Setting Up Successful AAC Use


For more information for parents who want to use AAC for their children see: Augmentative and Alternative Communication in the Early Childhood Years  


Catlaina Vrana Catlaina Vrana is a writer, illustrator, and public speaker. She believes that fear of disability hinders progress, and wants to spark the conversation on autism and other special needs, so communities can work together to make the world more 'able-ing' for people who are developmentally disabled. She enjoys cartoons (especially Rebecca Sugar's Steven Universe), cats, swinging, and church. 

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