What is Assisstive Augmentative Communication?

Written by Kate Grimes


This month is Assistive Augmentative Communication (AAC) awareness month. AAC is an umbrella term that covers any additional communicative means (rather than speech) a person uses to get their message across. It can include gesture, sign, picture exchange (exchanging pictures as a means of communication) and devices that support communication e.g. hand-held devices or devices activated by other means e.g. eye tracking. To give some more insight I spoke to Veerle Oben, a Senior Speech and Language Therapist based in Dubai, who specialises in the field of AAC.

1.How long have you been working as a speech and language therapist?
I started working as a Speech and Language Therapist in 1990 in Antwerp, Belgium at a School and Therapy Centre for Children with Special Needs aged 3-21 years of age, mainly children with Cerebral Palsy and Autism Spectrum Disorder.

2.What is your background/ experience?
I wanted to become a Speech and Language Therapist after seeing the movie “My left foot” at the age of 16. I started my 3 year training in Speech and Language Therapy and Audiology in Belgium in 1986.
From 1990-2003 I worked at the same Therapy Centre in Antwerp and did lots of extra training in AAC and Bliss symbols. Bliss symbols are a system of meaning-based symbols. Bliss symbols are used by people with severe difficulties in speaking to allow communication without speech.
I was part of ISAAC-NF (International Society of AAC for Netherlands and Flanders) and BSI (Bliss Symbolics International). I went to many of the biannual ISAAC meetings abroad and was part of the annual Bliss Symbolics meetings where we would come up with new Bliss symbols according to new needs and vocabulary from Bliss users around the world.
We also organised annual Bliss weekends where Bliss users (Netherlands and Flanders) would get together for a fun weekend of communication, including Bliss activities, quizzes, disco nights etc. These events are still organised to this day.
I was also part of MODEM, the expert network for AAC where we would hold monthly meetings with specialists in the AAC field to discuss new developments and work on new AAC software, in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Software such as MindExpress and Sprinto by Jabbla, Gent, Belgium.
We moved to Dubai in 2003 and from 2004-2012 I worked part-time at Rashid Paediatric Therapy Centre as an AAC Consultant.

3.Is there any particular reason why you got into this field?
I was really interested in AAC from the start of my career and all my experience has been in the field of assistive communication.

4.How long have you been working in supporting children/ individuals who needed AAC?
Since 1990. I am into my 27th year now.

5.How do you feel working in AAC differs to ‘typical’ speech and language therapy?
I think it covers a lot of fields in SLT, starting with OBSERVATION and adapting different parts of speech and language development and therapy to the level of the AAC users.
I call it a “head-shoulders-knees and toes approach”! You need your whole body and mind to be involved and lots of empathy to understand an AAC user (and their family!!). You also need to be able to break down speech, language and academics for communication which is mostly non- verbal.

6.What is the most memorable experience you have in supporting someone who needed AAC?
Organising and being part of the Bliss weekends for 20-30 Bliss users from different ages and their families and friends.
Being able to set up a bank of AAC tools at Rashid Paediatric Therapy Centre from 2009-2011.
Meeting up with my “old” AAC users (now aged 30 and above!) in Belgium over the summer and seeing them use their AAC tools -with lots of technology- in their daily adult lives!!! From using a LightWriter with sim card/phone option to using a smart phone with voice output.

7.Are there any critical factors that can help uptake of a device succeed or fail?
The whole TEAM of user, parents, friends and school need to be on board and give as many communication options per hour/day/situations as possible!!!

8.What would you advise a parent considering getting an AAC device for their child?
Start with basic AAC principles such as making simple visuals from photos/symbols/pictures/objects to represent verbal communication. You ALWAYS need a backup for any kind of technology when batteries run low or devices break down. You still need to be able to communicate!
ALWAYS give them a choice or options – at least two items/colours/numbers/food/drinks… and then stick to that chosen item as that is the basic concept of communication: I choose something and that’s what I get.
Count to 10 after every request or question!!

9.Do you know of any exciting developments in this field that we should keep a look out for?
It’s hard to keep up to date with ALL the new assistive technology (AT) and AAC technology. The options on the iPad has made it difficult for AT companies to keep on working on developing more suitable/ expensive AAC devices.
I like to go to the ISAAC conferences worldwide and locally at Al Noor Centre, Rashid Centre and at Consort World (in JLT Dubai). I have been sharing lots of information on AAC and AT.

10.Do you have a favourite device/ piece of equipment?
(i) The FREE Ablenet Sounding Board app on the iPad. The iPad should be used as a communication tool only and not to play games or share with the family. IPads, tablets and smartphones have become affordable and easy communication tools for lots of people!
(ii) Mayer Johnson Bigmack switches and Go Talk devices for Early Intervention and Show and Tell moments.
(iii) Tobiidynavox Lightwriter for AAC users that can use written language for their communication.
(iv) Mind Express on TELLUS by Jabbla Belgium.
(v) Sprint Plus by Jabbla Belgium to help with auditory feedback and spelling for AAC users and people with dyslexia.
(vi) Tobii Eye tracker.
(vii) PODD by Gayle Porter and “AAC and Literacy” tools by Caroline Musselwhite. These two amazing ladies are my AAC guru’s!!!
(viii) Last but not least : COMMUNICATION is the KEY !!! (to so many things in life! It is definitely key for non-verbal people and AAC users!)

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