AAC & Autism: The Benefits of Speech Therapy

Boy interacting with speech generating device
Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices can help those diagnosed with autism who are nonverbal or minimally verbal improve their expressive communication. Explore how AAC devices for autism can help people of all ages.

AAC and Autism

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly two percent of children are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). As many as half – children and adults – struggle to communicate verbally, which can impact their ability to form relationships, succeed in school, and express themselves. 

Augmentative and alternative communication can include gestures, sign language, and or voice output from an AAC device, also referred to as speech generation devices (SGD). These various modes of communication have been used for decades to support those who demonstrate difficulty with verbal communication. This may include those:

  • with an expressive language disorder 
  • who produce some speech
  • whose speech that is unintelligible to unfamiliar listeners
  • with echolalia

These people may benefit from an AAC device to augment their verbal communication. These devices provide additional sensory feedback that can help those with autism better comprehend and express themselves verbally. An AAC device may help them expand their vocabulary and improve their verbal communication skills. Overall, these devices may help boost confidence and create a sense of independence that can lead to enhanced communication and social interaction. Many AAC device users have successfully used their SGDs in the workplace, to complete college courses, and/or to present at conferences.

How do AAC devices work?

Speech-generating devices (SGDs) allow users to play with words and become active participants in communication. AAC methods are most effective when tailored to the individual learner. These devices feature screens with different display methods to accommodate users with varying abilities. Displays provide options for different symbols, images, systems, and access modes. When an image is selected, the device generates auditory output of the word or phrase. Over time, when paired with aided-language stimulation (ALgS), this may allow emergent communicators to better comprehend and express spoken language and familiarize themselves with its purpose and meaning.

Through the use of AAC, people with autism may be able to improve receptive and expressive language skills. The device allows them to pick and choose what words they are going to say, which may help them to better utilize them in their daily life. AAC provides additional visual information (pictures and text) combined with repetitive practice of a strong motor plan. When this is utilized in context with ALgS (also known as modeling), it teaches users the words they want to say and when they want to say them, making communication more natural. As a result, users may benefit from:

  • Improved speech
  • Increased literacy
  • Higher confidence
  • Greater independence
  • Better relationship building
  • Stronger connection to family and friends

No Prerequisites

There are no prerequisites (e.g., age, cognitive ability, motor skills) for utilizing AAC. The decision to start with AAC should begin with a team including the parents/caregivers, speech-language pathologist, occupational therapist, teachers, primary care practitioner and other stakeholders. Communication is a fundamental human right. Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression regardless of their age, ability or skill. An AAC device may be the tool needed access this basic human right to communication. 

How Speech Generating Devices Can Help

For those with autism, AAC and speech generating devices can be transformative. It is not only about learning to communicate verbally but also about gaining independence to participate more actively at home, school, or work. Having the ability to express ourselves is something many of us take for granted. When those with autism gain the ability to do the same, they may gain the confidence and understanding necessary to build and strengthen relationships with others and themselves. Communication is an important part of having a fuller life with autism, and AAC devices can help make that a reality. 

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