I first arrived in China linguistically unprepared, possessing little aside from xie xie and ni hao. I relied on all the visual cues and signage available to me; in the metro alone, the symbols depicting the ticket gate, entrances and exits were lifesavers! These visual supports increased my comprehension of the world around me while my handy Chinese translation app helped to bridge the communication gap I was experiencing. For children with communication impairments, augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) functions in the same way, enabling individuals to increase comprehension and providing a means to communicate expressively.
AAC refers to text-based or symbol based communication systems. This can take the form of symbols printed on paper, at the low tech end of spectrum, to dedicated speech generating devices/iPads with communication applications at the high tech end of the spectrum. The communication systems are customized and tailored to the needs of the individual by a speech-language pathologist and the child’s educational team.
It is never too early to introduce AAC to a child with communication impairments. Communication impairments can impact cognitive and social/emotional development; provision of alternative and augmentative means of communication allows the brain to develop and practice linguistic concepts in a functional manner until “natural” speech is possible. Additionally, increased ability to communicate leads to decreased frustration and increased social participation and engagement. AAC is essential for people who are non-verbal, but also benefits those with severe articulation (speech intelligibility) deficits and speaking individuals who need extra support structuring their language output.
There is a misconception that the use of alternative and augmentative communication will prevent children from speaking. This could not be farther from the truth! Studies have illustrated that the introduction of an alternative communication system promotes speech development- the use of visuals acts as an extra cue to scaffold oral language. As soon as a child develops the necessary fine motor skills and coordination to approximate and produce words, they will, as speech is the fastest and most efficient way to communicate. AAC acts as a means to an end, and not the end, allowing for functional communication until speech is possible.