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Augmentative and Alternative Communication.

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Lack of ability to communicate can be one of the most frustrating difficulties that people face.

hello symbolAugmentative and alternative communication (AAC) aids have been developed to assist the communication process of people who have a language impairment.

Often, these aids include the use of symbols and/or a switch access system and/or a Voice Output Communication Aids (VOCAs).



What is Augmentative and Alternative Communication?

symbol based communicationAugmentative and alternative communication (AAC) refers to the different ways (other than speech) that people use to communicate with each other. Although we may not be conscious of it, we all use augmentative communication techniques on a daily basis, such as facial expressions, gestures, writing, and increasingly, sending text messages and pictures on mobile phones. In difficult listening situations (noisy rooms, for example), we tend to augment our words with even more gestures and exaggerated facial expressions.

People with severe speech or language problems must rely quite heavily on these standard techniques as well as on special augmentative techniques that have been specifically developed for them. Some of these techniques involve the use of specialised gestures, sign language, or Morse code.

Other techniques use communication aids, such as charts and language boards. On aids such as these, objects may be represented by pictures, drawings, letters, words, sentences, special symbols or a combination of all of these methods.

Identifying what is the right technique or the correct aid to help someone with a communication difficulty can be fraught with difficulties. Very few people manage in isolation. In most cases individuals, families and professionals all need to be involved as a team from the start, identifying a need, through to supporting the long term goals of the individual.

The following information offers help to overcome the issues that can arise and lead to problems such as a lack of funding or inappropriate recommendations for equipment, training and support and/or a failure in implementation of the correct solutions, resulting in increased barriers for the individual.


What's New in AAC?

New FuturePad communication aid

Future pad

Sensory Software are selling the FuturePad, a handheld tablet PC that runs their The Grid software. It's a rugged and lightweight device that runs Windows XP Embedded, a version of Windows XP that requires no hard disk.

The FuturePad has an 8.4 inch colour touchscreen with a resolution of 800x600. It can be operated by a finger or stylus and is bright enough for outdoor use.

To find out more about the FuturePad communication aid visit the Sensory Software website.

What are Symbols?

Some people with disabilities are not able to use speech as their principle means of communication. They may however be able to use an alternative method of communication such as symbols and symbolic languages.

It is important to understand that symbols are different from pictures. Pictures generally convey a lot of information at once but their focus is often unclear. Symbols, on the other hand, are often designed to convey a particular meaning.

rebus symbols

Symbols or symbolic languages can be used to represent many aspects of verbal communication. Symbols can be presented through visual, auditory and/or tactile media and can take the form of gestures, photos, manual signs, printed words, objects, ‘reproduced’ spoken words or Braille.

pictorial symbols



There are also different kinds of symbol sets, for example, Pictorial Communication Symbols (above), Minspeak and Makaton Symbols (below) which can be helpful for people with a hearing impairment.

makaton symbols



Symbols can include simple body movements, such as nodding the head, shrugging the shoulders and other gestures that are widely understood within a given culture. Symbol systems, such as single-meaning icons, can provide a means of basic communication ranging from simple, unambiguous responses like ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ to more complex concepts like feelings (‘happy’, ‘sad or ‘hungry’.)

There are a variety of symbols and symbol-based languages that can be used to express more complex types of communication and that allow individuals to interact and convey cause and effect responses. These have generally been developed for users and listeners who have difficulty with understanding written or verbal language, for example for adults or children with learning difficulties such as autistic spectrum disorders.

Longer and more complex messages can be presented through different media of varying technical complexities, ranging from individual cards, paper charts and communication boards through to computer display programs and voice output devices. All of these systems have a common purpose, however – to provide an individual with the means to communicate more effectively, regardless of her/his disability.

Symbols can help support:

(various extracts from Widgit and Teaching and Learning Scotland)

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ispeek logo

Personal Communication Passports.
Janet Dixon has been working with autistic children in Merseyside for more than 10 years. During this time she has encountered many children who found communicating extremely difficult. Finding that traditional methods of communication often failed to engage the children she worked with, she devised her own system of symbols to facilitate communication.

i-speek symbolsIspeek at Home and Ispeek at School CD Rom’s (published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers on 28th December 2006 ISBN 1 84310 510 1 and ISBN 1 84310 511 X, £23.00 + VAT each) present visual aids which provide a simple and effective means of facilitating communication with children on the autistic spectrum. This CD-ROM is easy-to-use and contains 1200 picture symbols, designed especially for situations encountered at home and at school.

These innovative, original symbols will be a welcome communication aid for parents, teachers, therapists and other professionals working with children on the autism spectrum.

Janet Dixon is a qualified nursery nurse and speech and language therapy assistant who has worked in a school specialising in autistic spectrum disorders.

Ispeek at Home (ISBN 1 84310 510 1, £23.00+VAT) Contents:

1. Feelings. 2. Facial expressions. 3. Please listen. 4. In the home. 5. Savoury food. 6. Sweet food. 7. Drinks. 8. Packaging. 9. Shopping. 10. Cooking. 11. Health & Hygiene. 12. Holidays-Vacations. 13. Leisure. 14. People. 15. Medical.

Ispeek at School (ISBN 1 84310 511 X, £23.00+VAT) Contents:

1. Curriculum. 2. Sensory needs. 3. Behaviour. 4. Tools and resources. 5. Time and number. 6. Concepts. 7. Understanding. 8. Places and visits. 9. Independence. 10. Social skills. 11. Transitions. 12. Around and about. 13. Break times. 14. Work. 15. Actions.

Both CD's have ready to use templates for making your resources.

To visit the Ispeek website select this link

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Symbol Based Browser

symbol world logoSymbolWorld is a website created by Widgit Software, dedicated to people who use symbols. It has material for all ages and includes personal contributions, stories and learning materials. eLive is an on-line magazine within SymbolWorld especially for older readers.

SymbolWorld is designed to have clear easy navigation with large buttons for any links.


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Voice Output Communication Aids (VOCAs)

Symbols are often used in combination with communication devices known as Voice Output Communication Aids (VOCA).

tech touchVOCAs are electronic devices that are able to generate printed and/or spoken text. They aid individuals who are unable to use natural speech to meet all of their communication needs. There are many different products available. Some products are dedicated for communication purposes only while others are software programs in lap-top or tablet computer systems.

Tables Computers and VOCAs

Tablet computers, for example, are becoming more popular and less expensive than traditional or older dedicated devices.

Some have additional features built in such as appointment schedules and reminders, simple environmental control units, alternative access methods, dual displays, and abbreviation expansion programs.

Learning and Teaching Scotland: VOCAs

The Inclusion section of the Learning and Teaching Scotland webiste contains a concise overview of VOCAs. Select this link to find out more on VOCAs

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smartbox logo

powerboxSmartbox supply systems that enable people with disabilities to communicate and to access computers. Smartbox produce a range of communication systems based on standard computers, and supply software that gives users access to computers.

Smartbox systems may be wheelchair mounted (such as the PowerBox) or portable (such as the FuturePad). They also supply specialised alternatives to a keyboard and mouse, including the MyTobii eye-gaze system, the SmartNAV head pointer and a range of accessories and switch adaptors.

Smartbox also offer on site training and personal delivery for most products.

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Find out more about AAC, VOCAs and Symbols

The CALL Centre

CALL centre logo

(Communication Aids for Language and Learning) provides specialist expertise in technology for children who have speech, communication and/or writing difficulties, in schools across Scotland.

The CALL Centre provides information, guidance and resources on how Information and Communication Technology (ICT) can make a major impact on the education of children and people with disabilities or special educational and communication needs.

Visit the CALL Centre

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Ace centre logo

The ACE Centre (Oxford and North) provides a focus for the use of technology with the communication and educational needs of young people with physical and communication difficulties.

Visit the ACE Centre

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FACCT logo

Fife Assessment Centre for Communication through Technology (FACCT) is based in Auchterderran Centre at Cardenden, Fife. It is joint funded with the three agencies Education, Social Work and Health working together to provide the present service.

The service through FACCT aims to help people of all ages with severe oral communication difficulties to communicate more effectively through the use of appropriate devices or systems.

The team consists of a Coordinator, Senior Teacher, Speech and Language Therapist, Speech and Language Therapist Assistant, Senior Technician and a Clerical Assistant all working together to provide support, information and training to people involved in the area of Alternative and Augmentative Communication.

To contact FACCT select this link

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AAC: Suppliers and Links



Sensory Software

Inclusive Technology

Crick Software

Toby Churchill (Lightwriter)

Possum (Cambridge Adaptive)

Prentke Romich International

Inclusive Technology

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Symbol Software: Suppliers and Links


Symbol World


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