AAC Systems and Speech and Language Development
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AAC Systems and Speech and Language Development


I see a lot of minimally speaking or non-verbal children in my practice. Some children are autistic and others are severely challenged with motor planning and some are both. Some children are simply delayed in their spoken language for reasons that we don’t quite know yet.

Regardless of the causes, what is always apparent pretty quickly is that apart from the odd gestures or Makaton signs (mainly ‘more” ‘finished’ and “biscuit) we don’t have a robust alternative for speech in place. Instead, what we often have is a child with lots of frustration and tantrums and some behaviours we really don’t want like: hitting, biting, pushing, grabbing and often throwing… There are others, too many to mention, but we don’t enjoy watching our children in these states. And we are often fearful of what might happen next if we don’t find a way to calm our child.

Fear not

In my work, before I get to offer an alternative means of communication, I often have to work with a fair amount of resistance on the parents’ side as parents tend to feel that allowing such a system into their lives will prevent their child from speaking. They fear that their child will so enjoy pressing those buttons that they will become lazy and not talk at all.

I totally get it!

Parents often feel overwhelmed by the task of getting their own heads round how to use AAC, either in paper form or a computerised system. This can be a great turn-off for lots of people who feel they are not very “techy” – like myself actually! Indeed, it is true to say that I resisted operating in this field for a long time as I didn’t feel able to navigate electronic devices. But fear not. Truly, most systems are very user-friendly. The support is great. And I have managed to become quite proficient in one or two of these systems, through using it daily. It really is as simple as that.

Alternative and Augmentative Communication (AAC)

There is plenty of research on the efficacy of Alternative and Augmentative Communication (AAC). It is now very well understood and proven that, once we introduce our child to a good, attractive way of communicating that they can actually do, in time children who can speak will speak. Speaking is more effective than any AAC system. It is more versatile, more fun, and when human beings have discovered how to speak, most will do so in favour of any other system.

Many children and adults, for many reasons, were never going to speak an awful lot, or with great difficulty. Or they were not going to like to speak. Or they were going to like to speak some times but not other times… And for all those people an AAC system is invaluable and a wonderful resource.

Neuro-diversity affirming means that we do not impose one system of communication on our children (speaking with our mouth) only because it is the one we are using and most people we know too.

Of course, we want the best for our children, and we want them to have the easiest and most straight forward existence on Earth. Of course we do. Speaking with our mouth does help with that. But we must come to understand that not all children and people feel like that and they struggle to use their mouth for talking.

Personal experience

I have difficulties understanding this myself, I will be very honest here. And I will say that – shoot me down in flames SLT fraternity – but I am learning to accept that using an AAC system proficiently is a very good alternative for when speech is not coming. I am learning to accept that some people are perfectly able to speak, and might do so but not always and only when conditions are right. I came into the profession as a speech therapist with the idea that I would help anybody that came to me to speak with their mouth. But I have changed my stance on that and now am happy to help anybody that comes to me to communicate most effectively with whatever works for them. I will always try for speech if I can … Just because it’s easiest!


Now I will equally celebrate a child pointing to a symbol or making a sign for something. It is a fantastic moment when it happens for the parents and me and the child! And we can always hope for more speech to come as we go. Nothing wrong with our aspirations, is there?

The basic premise is this: accept any mode of communication as valid, as long as your communication partner understands what it means. Don’t require individuals to repeat themselves in another modality. Do model the response in the modality you are trying to teach. So, a child can point to a symbol and I will respond with speaking (with my mouth) but I will also respond by pointing to a symbol because that way I am signalling that both are ok and that I have understood and am encouraging the person to say some more.

Here is some research;

Binger, C., Berens, J., Kent-Walsh, J., & Taylor, S. (2008) The effects of aided AAC interventions on AAC use, speech and symbolic gestures. Seminars in Speech and Language, 29, 101-111.

Sennott, S.C., Light, J., & McNaughton, D. (2016). AAC modelling intervention research review. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 41, 101–15.

Dada, S., & Alant, E. (2009). The effect of aided language stimulation on vocabulary acquisition in children with little or no functional speech. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 18, 50–64.

Contact me if you would like your child to have neurodiversity affirming speech and language therapy.

Find a speech and language therapist for your child in London. Are you concerned about your child’s speech, feeding or communication skills and don’t know where to turn? Please contact me and we can discuss how I can help you or visit my services page.