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Alternative forms of communication

Communication is the sharing of information from one person to another and may be written or spoken.

Communication may or may not be intentional. For example a cry can indicate discomfort, but may not be used deliberately to request some help. Similarly communication may or may not be conventional, and for many people it is difficult. Conventional communication refers to behaviours such as gestures and pointing that are used by many of us to communicate. Unconventional communication include strategies such as physically taking someone by the hand to an item as opposed to pointing to it.

For More information on early language development, go to the 'Ages and Stages' section of Talking Point.

Communication difficulties may be a result of a physical disability, sensory impairment, language impairment or learning difficulty. There are many different ways to communicate and there are many strategies that can help.

Edie is using a voice output communication aid and asking her Mummy to model the playdoh for her.

Edie using a voice output communication aid

What is AAC?

Augmentative and Alternative Communication (or AAC) are the different ways to communicate in addition to, or in replacement of, speech or writing.

AAC resources may be helpful for supporting receptive or expressive communication. Receptive communication means understanding what someone else is communicating to you. Expressive communication is conveying a message to someone else.

AAC systems may be unaided or aided. Unaided systems do not require any additional resources. Signing is an example of an unaided method of communication, which also utilises gesture and facial expression. Aided AAC systems involve the use of additional resources and can be categorised as Low Tech, Light Tech or High Tech.

Low Tech systems involve little or no technology, such as the use of objects or pictures or symbols. These can be used to help understanding (receptive communication) or to pass on information (expressive communication). Examples of these are Communication Boards, Communication Books and E-Tran Frames.

Abigail is using her communication book to talk about her magazine 'In the Night Garden' Abigail using her communication book

Light Tech and High Tech AAC are battery operated devices that speak messages. These are often called Voice Output Communication Aids or VOCAs. These vary widely and may offer a single message up to multiple messages. They may involve a single button press to speak a whole message or require multiple button presses to build up a sentence.

Annie is using a TechTalk communication aid to talk to her brother and Mum about a book.
Annie is using a TechTalk communication aid

For children who are likely to require AAC, there are benefits to introducing systems early on. Prolonged periods of time without a communication system can lead to frustration or may result in reduced interest and passivity. It is vital to identify systems that will allow children to have some control in their lives and to demonstrate what they can achieve.

Using AAC systems will always be slower than speech, so introducing strategies early on can be helpful. Sometimes it may be necessary to practise the physical skills to access the communication resources as well as learn how to use them.

Edie is learning to eye point. She is choosing which toy she would like to play with and will look at the photograph to choose it. She can look at the picture and then at her communication partner to make a choice.
Edie is learning to eye point

It is easier for Edie to look at what she wants than to point to it. When identifying the best AAC system it is important to make it as quick and easy as possible.

There are many different ways that a message can be represented.

Forms of Representation
Objects A real object can be used to indicate an activity. For example, a cup may indicate a drink, or a shoe to indicate going out. This may need to be the child’s personal belongings to help them understand the meaning.
Representation of Object A representation of that object may be sufficient to be understood. For example, a pair of laces might indicate a shoe.
Photography Shoes
Symbol Shoe
Written Word SHOE

Stages of Communication Development

Early communication can be described as pre-intentional. This means that the individual is communicating but may not have planned to do so, such as crying as a result of hunger or discomfort.

Intentional communication develops later and communication skills are used deliberately to pass on information. Often unconventional behaviours are used before conventional methods are learnt, for example, tugging on people to show them something, or vocalising and gesturing.

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