Understanding Augmentative and Alternative Communication Devices (AAC)

Techniques & Technology Transforming Non-Verbal Expression

Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) refers to a wide range of tools and strategies that supplement or replace spoken language for individuals with speech disabilities or communication difficulties. These can include high-tech devices like speech-generating tablets, or simpler tools like picture boards and communication books. Even gestures and facial expressions can be part of an AAC system. AAC as a category includes both augmentative communication tools, which can supplement existing speech, and alternative communication devices, which replace speech entirely.


AAC offers people different ways to get ideas and wishes across, express themselves, and engage with others, regardless of their spoken communication abilities. Through the use of multiple approaches within AAC, including everything from high-tech gadgets to interpersonal strategies, AAC systems deliver solutions that support independence and better quality of life for people who need communication assistance, with communication approaches that can be adapted to the linguistic, cognitive and developmental levels of the user.

Types Of AAC Devices: A Wide Range of Assistive Mechanisms

AAC systems and solutions can appear in a variety of forms, from simple to complex. We can refer to their levels of complexity as no-tech, low-tech, mid-tech and high-tech.

At the no-tech level, individuals often use gestures, sign language, body language, or facial expressions to convey messages. Also in the no-tech category are picture boards and communication books that use symbols or pictures to represent words and phrases, allowing users to point to communicate, and reusable communication boards for written exchanges. Picture boards and symbol books are especially useful in teaching young learners visually.

Moving to low-tech options, there are mics, megaphones and amplifiers to boost the volume of a speaker’s voice.

Mid-tech solutions include simple voice-recording devices with pre-recorded messages for frequent communication needs, and less complex speech-generating devices (SGDs) that include a basic vocabulary: these portable electronic devices with buttons or touchscreens can synthesize speech from chosen symbols, words or phrases.

High-tech augmentative and alternative communication devices run the gamut from mobile apps with picture symbols, voice recording capabilities, and customizable features, to sophisticated speech-generating devices (SGDs) and computer-based systems that allow for dynamic communication, often with synthesized speech customization for a more natural-sounding voice, and onward to yet more advanced technologies such as brain-computer interface (BCI) systems that translate brain activity into commands, to control connected tools.

AAC Language Representation Methods: A Breakdown

There are three main categories of language representation methods used in AAC devices. It’s important to understand that these are underlying concepts, and sometimes more than one of these methods can be implemented on the same device or tool, or in the same software application. Symbols here can refer to either pictures, simplified icons, or letters and words.

1) Single-Meaning
This is the most basic approach. Each picture or symbol directly represents a single word, eliminating the need for literacy skills. However, some users might require training to learn symbol meanings.

Example: A picture of a cup signifies the word “drink.”

2) Alphabet-Based
These systems rely on spelling words. This method requires a foundation in literacy skills for effective use.

Example: Typing the letters “D-R-I-N-K” spells out the word “drink.” Or, “D-R-K” could be used.

3) Multiple-Meaning
This approach utilizes multiple icons, typically a short sequence of one or two symbols per word. Training is necessary to understand how these condensed symbols represent full words or concepts.

Example: A picture of a mouth and a cup combined might symbolize the word “drink.”

Many modern AAC devices leverage a combination of these three systems, offering flexibility and working to serve individual needs, to allows users to express themselves more effectively within their current literacy level.

Speech Generating Devices (SGDs) in AAC

For people who rely on AAC, two goals stand out:

  • Precision: The ability to express exactly what they had in mind.
  • Speed: Communicating their thoughts and needs immediately.

How do SGDs, including standalone devices and integrated software, get these users to their goals? By using any of the options below, or a blend of options that can be adjusted for the user’s individual needs.


Large symbol libraries for message building, with thousands of symbols and pictures to choose from

Communicate effectively using symbols and pictures


Converts typed text into spoken language; can include various voice options

Express thoughts and ideas verbally with chosen voice and inflection


Users can personalize their SGDs with preferred vocabulary, voice options, and physical access methods like joysticks, switches or touchscreens.

Increase independence and personalize communication for specific needs

Some devices also incorporate tactile buttons, which are essential options for users with low vision or blindness. The best AAC speech generating devices and software solutions offer a strong core vocabulary that includes frequently used words and phrases, the ability to add additional vocabulary for specific situations or interests, and tools for constructing clearly structured sentences.

With the right AAC, users with limited speech abilities can communicate more effectively, express themselves, improve their social interactions and build relationships, and increase their independence and their ability to participate in daily activities.

Who Uses AAC Devices?

AAC devices are used by individuals of all ages who have difficulty communicating due to a variety of reasons:

  • Developmental & Neurodevelopmental Disabilities: Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and many types of cognitive disabilities. These conditions can affect a person's ability to understand or use spoken language. Sometimes, AAC will be used as part of a therapeutic learning process, and may not necessarily be a long-term solution. In other cases, AAC will continue to be useful.
  • Acquired Conditions: Some long-term conditions can develop after birth and early development, and can impact speech abilities. For instance, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) progressively weakens muscles, including those involved in speaking. People with ALS may need to adapt to using AAC devices as their speech weakens. Other acquired conditions that can necessitate AAC include Aphasia (language difficulty due to brain injury), Apraxia of Speech (difficulty coordinating the muscles needed for speech), and traumatic brain injury (TBI). And, aging-related cognitive difficulties including Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia may cause obstacles to speech and communication that AAC can sometimes help bridge.
  • Short-Term Needs: Patients recovering from surgery may need to use AAC devices temporarily. Certain surgeries can temporarily impact the ability to speak, including dental surgery, procedures on the vocal cords, surgeries for oral or throat cancer, surgeries to address severe head injuries, and tracheostomies. This could also include brain surgery that affects speech centers.

Daily Communication with AAC Devices

Children playing on a table with large buttons and icons to help with learning.

AAC devices are more than just communicator assistants; they are tools for independence and social interaction. They allow users to participate in conversations, express themselves creatively, and control their environment. AAC devices give people more freedom. They can order food, ask for help, and handle daily tasks on their own. This means they rely less on others to talk for them. AAC devices help people chat with others, share ideas, and make friends: this lets them feel more included and less alone. With AAC devices, people can show how they feel: happy or sad, excited or frustrated. This helps others understand them better and build stronger connections. AAC devices can also be used to learn new things, read schoolwork, and join in class activities, which helps students of all ages do well in school and enjoy learning.

AAC Devices for Everyday Tasks

Here are some specific AAC devices and how they can support communication and social interaction:

Picture Boards

Use: Basic Communication

Task Example
Point to pictures to order food at a restaurant.

Communication Apps

Use: Complex Communication

Task Example
Build messages with symbols or text to have a conversation.

Speech-Generating Devices (SGDs)

Use: Increased Independence

Task Example
Use device to control lights, play music, or call for help, with synthetic speech.

Eye Gaze Technology

Use: Communication for Low Mobility

Task Example
Select symbols or letters with eye movements to communicate.

Sign Language Apps

Use: Communication with Sign Language Users

Task Example
Translate spoken language into signs for wider social interaction.

Adapting Your AAC Communication Device for Different Needs

AAC devices can be adapted to meet a wide range of abilities:

  • Picture Boards: The complexity of symbols and the number of choices can be adjusted based on the user's needs and abilities.
  • Communication Apps: Many apps offer settings to adjust symbol size, voice options, and scanning methods for easier selection.
  • Speech-Generating Devices (SGDs): SGDs can be customized with preferred vocabulary buttons, voice options, and physical access methods like joysticks or touchscreens.
  • Text-to-Speech Apps: Setting can be adjusted for speed and clarity of speech output, as well as ease of typing, offering support for different motor skills and cognitive levels.
  • Eye Gaze Technology: The calibration settings can be adjusted for optimal eye tracking, and the size and layout of on-screen targets can be modified for ease of use.
  • Sign Language Apps: Signing speed and display options can be adjusted to best suit the user's needs.

Not all AAC devices are adaptable, but a speech-language pathologist can help assess a user's needs and recommend the most appropriate and adaptable AAC tool.

AAC devices are powerful tools for people who face communication difficulties. These devices don't just help them speak, they let them tell others what they want and need.

Why Accessible Websites Matter for AAC

Blind happy person, navigating a website with ease due to its accessibility friendly features.

Accessible websites are essential for people with disabilities of all ages. Everyone should be able to access information equally, and websites must be accessible in order for them to do so. This includes children with speech impairments who use AAC devices to learn and communicate. Accessible websites are also important for aging adults who may develop speech or communication difficulties. Specifically for AAC users and their support network, accessible websites offer a wealth of information on different types of AAC devices, strategies for using AAC effectively, and resources for finding AAC specialists and therapists. Without accessible websites, this information could be out of reach for those who need it most.

Websites that provide information on AAC should prioritize accessibility features to make sure everyone can find the information they need.

Important Website Accessibility Features

  • Alternative text for images: Descriptions of images help visually impaired users understand the content.
  • Captioned videos: Captions provide text versions of spoken dialogue, aiding users who are deaf or hard of hearing.
  • Clear navigation structures: Logical and predictable website layouts make it easier for users with cognitive disabilities to find information.
  • Keyboard accessibility: Building in keyboard access functionality and checking that all website functions can be accessed using just the keyboard allows users who cannot use a mouse to navigate effectively.
  • Compatibility with assistive technologies: Websites should be compatible with screen readers and other assistive technologies used by people with disabilities.
  • Use of clear and concise language: Avoiding complex jargon and using plain language makes the information easier to understand for everyone, including people with learning disabilities.
  • Read-aloud tools: These tools can read text out loud, assisting users who have difficulty reading or who prefer auditory learning over visual.
  • High contrast and text resizing options: These features accommodate users with visual impairments and those who find small text challenging to read.

By incorporating these accessibility features, AAC resource websites significantly improve the experience for all users, with and without disabilities. And, websites become valuable resources for AAC users, families, educators, and therapists, making essential information about AAC devices and support systems more approachable and usable.

AAC Device Integration: A Connected World

Modern AAC devices can connect to computers and smartphones through various means such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or cables. This integration allows users to control and access other devices, extending the utility of AAC devices beyond simple communication. Adding in relevant applications and software can significantly expand the capabilities of AAC devices. They can provide customizable communication interfaces, access to a broader range of vocabulary, and the ability to partake in social media, broadening communication possibilities for users.

Web & Digital Accessibility: Tools for Inclusion

Website accessibility tools are software programs that help identify and address accessibility barriers on websites. These tools can be used to confirm that online AAC resources meet accessibility standards, allowing everyone to access important information.

Accessibility Strategies for Organizations

Organizations can implement website accessibility tools in several ways:

  • Automated Testing
    Organizations can use web accessibility checkers to regularly audit their websites. These automated accessibility testing tools can scan websites and identify potential accessibility issues, as well as non-compliance with accessibility standards. Some can also suggest corrections, such as adding missing alt text for images or correcting unclear navigation structures.
  • Manual Review
    Accessibility specialists can manually review websites to check whether they comply with accessibility guidelines. This can involve using assistive technologies like screen readers to test website usability.
  • User Testing
    Including users with disabilities in website testing can provide valuable insights into real-world accessibility challenges.
  • User Feedback Systems
    Implementing mechanisms to gather feedback from users about their accessibility experiences can guide organizations in making continuous improvements to their websites.

In addition to testing, training web developers and content creators on accessibility standards and best practices sets up a process where all new content and features are accessible from the start. By using a combination of these strategies, organizations can proactively address accessibility issues, making their websites inclusive for all.

What Are Accessibility Checkers?

Website accessibility checkers are like digital spellcheckers for accessibility. They analyze websites and flag potential issues that could hinder usability for people with disabilities. They can help:

Identify Issues
Website accessibility checkers can detect common issues and accessibility blockers like missing alt text, broken keyboard navigation, and unclear content structure.

Improve User Experience
By addressing accessibility issues, websites become more navigable and understandable for all users, regardless of their abilities.

Make Inclusive Content
Accessibility checkers give organizations a way to check that they are creating not only high-quality content, but content that is accessible to everyone.

AAC: A Voice For All Of Us

AAC devices are transforming the way people communicate. These tools are more than just accessibility equipment; they're stepping stones to a world of connection and participation. AAC offers users options to express themselves, engage in conversations, and take part in daily activities on their own terms, with a range of options that can be adapted to individual needs and abilities.

The impact of AAC extends beyond the devices themselves. Accessible websites offer a wealth of information on AAC options, while online communities provide support and connection for users and their families. This combination of tools and resources empowers AAC users to take charge of their communication and live more independent lives.

Offering a voice to those who might otherwise be unheard not only enriches individual lives, it elevates our society as a whole. AAC technology contributes to the creation of a more inclusive place to live, a world where everyone can participate and contribute their unique talents and perspectives, creating a richer and more diverse human experience. When that happens, we all benefit.


Are AAC devices only for people who cannot speak at all?

No, AAC devices can benefit people with a wide range of speech abilities. Some people may use AAC to supplement their spoken communication, while others may rely on it entirely.

Top 5 Accessibility