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What is AAC?

Updated: Nov 4, 2019

When we hear the word communication, most of us probably think of spoken language. But, is there more to it than the words we speak? Let's think about how we communicate.

Imagine you are having a bad day. Work was rough and rush hour traffic was horrendous. You walk into your house, let out a frustrated sigh, and slam the door. You haven’t spoken a single word, but have you communicated?

Now imagine that you are on the phone and your child attempts to interrupt you. You hold up your index finger to signal “wait a minute.” Again, you haven’t spoken, but did you communicate?

Now think of a time when you saw a familiar person in the hallway. Maybe you smiled, waved, or nodded your head. Without speaking, were you able to communicate?

In these examples, we didn’t have to speak to convey our messages. In the first example, we used actions and vocalizations to express our irritation. In the second, we used gestures. In the last example, we used facial expressions and body language. We are all multimodal communicators, meaning we use a variety of communication modes to express ourselves. All of these supplemental ways that we communicate can be considered augmentative and alternative communication (AAC).

We should strive to ensure that our students and loved ones with complex communication needs (CCN) have access to multimodal communication, as well. CCN refers to severe speech, language and communication impairments. For individuals with CCN, conventional spoken language may not be functional or reliable to meet communication needs. For these individuals, AAC can be introduced to support development of effective communication.

AAC encompasses all of the ways we communicate, including those mentioned above. In the AAC Institute’s Self-Study Program, AAC is defined as a “field of endeavor with a goal to optimize the communication of individuals with significant communication disorders.” For individuals with CCN, AAC can be a powerful tool for establishing a means to represent language in order to communicate and interact with others.

There are two main types of AAC: unaided and aided.

Unaided AAC refers to any modality that does not require anything beyond a person’s body. Some examples of unaided AAC include sign language, gestures, facial expressions, actions, and body language.

Aided AAC refers to any modality that requires equipment beyond the individual’s body. Aided AAC consists of no-tech supports, such as picture exchange and vocabulary boards, low-tech systems such as a simple, recordable voice output device, and high-tech systems such as communication apps, computerized devices, and dynamic systems that utilize more advanced technology.

If you have a loved one or student with CCN, it is worth exploring AAC as there are so many incredible options. AAC is not one-size-fits-all. While finding the right system can be challenging, it is so worth it to help another human being find his or her own voice!

For additional information, please check out the following resources:

-AAC Institute:

-American Speech-Language and Hearing Association:


Self-Study Program, AAC Institute, Accessed 8/7/19