As a speech-language pathologist for more than 18 years, I have spent most of my career in the field of augmentative and alternative communication. My key interests have always been children and adults who have complex communication needs. This population displays a variety of disabilities, but my past and current caseloads include mostly children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Many people ask, “What are complex communication needs? Does this mean those individuals who are nonverbal?” I often explain this definition to my graduate students, staff that I train, and others in my work environment. Individuals with complex communication needs cannot communicate in a conventional way (e.g., speech) as a result of a significant speech, language, or cognitive impairment. This can include those individuals who are nonverbal, minimally verbal (have a limited vocabulary of words in their expressive language), and verbal who are severely unintelligible (difficult to understand). There are also those individuals who are moderately unintelligible and need a form of communication with unfamiliar communication partners who do not understand their speech. Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) include those individuals who need ways to communicate in an alternative way (for those who don’t have any speech) or an augmentative way (those that have speech but need an additional means of communication).
If you have a child with complex communication needs, you may already know about the field of AAC. Where do you start? Do you download a communication app and try it out with your child? As a speech- language pathologist (SLP), I always recommend that when seeking out a formal communication system, a comprehensive augmentative and alternative communication be completed by a speech-language pathologist to explore the most appropriate system.
Below are six commonly asked questions from parents regarding AAC evaluations:
1. Why do SLPs conduct AAC evaluations?
As speech-language pathologists, we have strong backgrounds in language and communication. However, not all speech-language pathologists are experts in augmentative and alternative communication. Like any field, there are specialists in feeding, voice, articulation, and other areas. Seeking a speech-language pathologist who specializes in AAC has a vast knowledge of the current equipment, funding, and research, and can properly evaluate a child with all appropriate systems available. This is an important step in seeking an AAC evaluation.
2. How can I find an SLP that is an AAC specialist?
There are speech-language pathologists that are AAC specialists in all different settings including clinics, schools, day programs, and universities. To seek a specialist in your area, reach out to either your school district or your child’s therapists who will be able to provide you with a recommendation. Service coordinators, parent advocates, and social workers can also be excellent resources. Other public forums can be helpful as well, such as private groups like AAC for the SLP on Facebook.
3. How is the AAC Evaluation funded?
The AAC Evaluation can be funded through a variety of sources including school districts, insurance, and Medicaid/Medicare.
4. How long does it take to learn an AAC system?
This is a question that I am often asked because many people have the misconception that once you have a communication system, you can use it right away without any training. This can’t be further from the truth. AAC is like a second language and can take months or years to learn well. Although it takes time to learn, once learned, a communication system can change the life of a child with complex communication needs. I have seen this transformation over and over again with my clients for 18 years, which is what gravitated me towards the field of AAC. When a child can communicate, his/her world changes which, in turn, changes the lives of all of those people who love and support that child.
5. Will AAC stop my child from talking?
AAC does not hinder speech. There has been substantial research that has shown that AAC helps children develop speech. For recent research on this topic, check out an article written by Diane C. Millar,Janice C. Light, and Ralf W. Schlosser. To learn more about the myths of AAC, click here.
6. Are there any requirements to be eligible for an AAC system?
No! There is a zero reject policy for AAC. No individual is excluded based on his/her cognitive or physical disabilities.
Rebecca Eisenberg, MS, CCC-SLP, is a certified speech-language pathologist, author, instructor, and parent of two children. She has been working in the field of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) for more than 15 years in a variety of settings and currently works with both children and adults with autism and other varying disabilities who have complex communication needs. She also writes a blog, called Gravity Bread, for parents that focuses on using mealtime as a learning opportunity for language. She is a children’s book author of The Monkey Balloon, and she will be releasing two more children’s books this summer titled My Second Year of Kindergarten and A Tale of The Monkey Balloon. She has also published multiple games and a workbook for children with special needs through Super Duper Publications. She can be reached via email.
This article was featured in Issue 67 – Preparing for Adulthood With Autism