What are the Prerequisite Skills for AAC Devices?

In short, there are no prerequisite skills for AAC!  But let me explain why:

This is the most common question I get from parents and therapists working with non-verbal children who are considering augmented or alternative communication (AAC) systems or devices for a child.  There seem to be a pre-conceived notion that there are some pre-requisites for AAC devices that a child must have before they can be considered a candidate for an AAC device.

This is simply not true. In fact, AAC can actually help a child learn those skills more quickly.  The following examples will explain what I mean.  I will mention some common “prerequisite skills for AAC” that I hear about for AAC children and then I will explain why each one is not necessary before AAC can be initiated.

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prerequisite skills for AAC

Prerequisite Skills for AAC Myth 1: The child must understand cause and effect

Cause and effect is the basis for communication.  If a child doesn’t understand that an action they take causes something to happen, they will not try to communicate to cause something to happen either.  Some people believe that this means a child cannot use AAC if they don’t understand cause/effect.

In fact, AAC can be used to teach cause and effect as well as communication at the same time.  There are devices called “big mack switches” by Mayer-Johnson that are a single large button that when pushed, will speak one pre-recorded message.  (Follow any of my affiliate links in this article and Mayer Johnson will give you free shipping!)

Let’s say the child really likes Cheerios.  You can record your voice on the button saying “cheerio” so that every time the button is pushed it will say that message.  Now, help the child move her hand to push the button.  When it says “Cheerio”, respond as though the child had just said the word: “Oh you want a Cheerio!  Sure!” and promptly give the child a cheerio.

Now, the child is beginning to learn that when she pushes the button, she gets a cheerio!  That’s teaching her cause and effect and how to use an AAC device.  It’s perfect!

prerequisite skills for AAC

Prerequisite Myth 2: The Child Must Understand that a Picture Represents an Object

One common problem for non-verbal children is that they don’t understand that the picture of the cheerio in front of him represents that cheerio in your hand that he wants.  Fortunately, AAC devices can be used to teach your child that as well!

If you are using a one-button talker, like the one mentioned above, simply attach a picture of what your child is requesting to the button.  You can Velcro it on so that you can switch it out when your child wants something else.  This will help your child begin to associate that picture with what he requests.

Once your child is doing well at that, you can try a talker with two buttons, such as Mayer Johnson’s iTalk2 Communicator. For this device, put a picture of something the child really wants on one button (such as the cheerio) and then on the other button, put a picture of something the child really dislikes (such as anchovies).

Then, when the child pushes the wrong button, give him the thing he dislikes.  Once he figures out which button gets him which thing, start switching the pictures around so that he really has to look at the picture to make sure he requests the correct thing.  This will help him understand that the picture of the cheerio is what will get him what he wants.

prerequisite skills for AAC

Prerequisite Myth 3: The Child Must Have Good Enough Motor Skills for AAC

Technology is an amazing thing and AAC companies have come up with tons of different ways for AAC users to access their devices, even if they do not have great motor skills.

For example, you can get a device with larger buttons or with physical dividers that will make it easier for the child to get her finger onto the correct button.  Or, your child could use a normal communication device but access it using a variety of easy-to-use switches, such as the following from Mayer Johnson:

  • Proximity Switches: Your child only needs to move her hand near the switch for it to activate the talker
  • Jelly Bean Switch: Can be positioned near any part of your child’s body so she can activate her talker with her head, leg, knee, foot, hand, elbow, etc.
  • Tilt Switch: Will allow your child to access her talker by tilting her head.
  • Step Pad: Allows your child to step on a button to activate the talker
  • Eye Gaze Systems: The device will recognize what your child is looking at and speak that message.