Communication is a fundamental aspect of living, learning, leisure and work. Technology can be crucial in enabling users with communication difficulties to maintain relationships in all walks of life. For adults with communication difficulties technology can be a life changer.

pyramid of need
Hierarchy of technology needs

Augmented and Alternative Communication

Any communication other than by verbal speech is considered to be augmentative or alternative communication (AAC*). The difference between the two is the level of dependency involved:

  • augmented communication provides additional support to existing communication skills
  • alternative communication is the use of a completely different method

Sign language such as British Sign language (BSL*) or Makaton* is AAC*, as is using a low-tech option such as the Picture Exchange System (PECS*). There is a wide range of technology that can provide communication systems. These might be dedicated devices or increasingly now apps on hand held devices that can be customized to a user’s particular needs and access requirements.

AAC provides the means for learners who are unable to speak to share their desires, needs, thoughts and humour. It provides a means to interact and ask questions of others. It is important that the AAC a person uses provides them with the ability to spontaneously react and initiate conversations at any time and in any place. Finding a way to communicate in a way that is right for the individual and that allows them to customize as they need is a complex procedure that needs input from a variety of professionals. These will include both speech and language and occupational therapists as well as assistive technologists and care staff. It is likely that any communication system will develop and mature over time as the user becomes more adept and confident it its use.

Finding the right technology solutions for the individual is not always straight forward. There are many variations of software applications (Apps) available for communication. It is difficult to know what is likely to be the right solution for each individual without extensive assessment and trialling of different options. The Development, Autism, Research and Technology (DART) team from the University of Edinburgh has a useful page of reviews of apps that may be useful for Autistic children and adults. These include a large number of apps for communication.

There are a range of organisations that support and campaign for users of AAC. These include Communication Matters and 1Voice who both provide opportunities for networking and training along with information and guidance.

assistive technology
Scanning symbols

Many AAC devices use a scanning system that allows the user to select the letter, word, phrase or symbol that they need to construct their message. These can be very basic or have multiple levels of complexity and organisation. There are a wide range of scanning methods and timings that can be customized to ensure the right method for individual users. Explanations of the scanning methods and timings can be seen on the following videos:
Switch Selection
Scanning frequency

Although these videos are based on one particular application the principles of scanning options along with timing and frequency are essential decisions to be made no matter what software application is used.