AAC & Autism

AAC & Autism

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a lifelong condition that has significant impact on an individual’s social communication skills. As challenges in communication are a hallmark characteristic of many people coping with ASD it is important to think carefully about how AAC could improve language acquisition. It is believed that up to 60% of all adolescents with ASD leave high school without functional communication.

There is huge variation within those on the Spectrum that truly makes each individual unique. However, there are some characteristics of Autism that can be largely generalised. Knowing what these characteristics are, we can develop assistive technology strategies that help to support strengths & counter weaknesses.

Commonly found characteristics include:

  • Being strong visual learners
  • Being highly detail-focussed
  • Thriving in a task when there is consistency and routine
  • Seeking a variety of sensory experiences to boost interpretation

Benefits of AAC in supporting communication

Symbol-based AAC, by its very nature, is highly visual. Whether it be a low-tech system or a high-tech system there is always a strong visual component. Yet language, especially spoken language, is notional, abstract in concept. Most parts of speech are composed of core vocabulary which represents about 80% of everything we ever say on a daily basis. These key words are very difficult to represent accurately with symbols, making the acquisition of language for many living with Autism extremely hard. Their reliance on visual learning strengths cannot compensate for the same problems they encountered when trying to master text-based language.

Multiple sensory experiences gained from using AAC systems can often reinforce an individual’s language learning. For instance, the ability to:

  • see content…how concrete are the symbols? colour coding parts of speech, spatial array
  • feel the tangible support…touch access, keyguard providing spatial reference
  • hear consistent production of words…rapidly with identical pitch, tone & volume

AAC systems such as Unity and LAMP Words for Life offer consistent positioning of symbols that never alter in their location. This feature is incredibly powerful for users who have ASD as their natural ability to remember detail coupled with the benefit of having predictable routine, greatly enhances their chance of success.

Also, the patterns of symbol selection, built-up through the sequencing of symbols to generate words, provide additional benefits though motor-plan development. In time, this can lead to automaticity…the exact same process we employ to generate speech ourselves. We learn to vocalise words by repetitions of unique motor-plans structured around the sequential use of our tongue, teeth, & lips. This represents the particular component of natural speech production that confounds many young people as they grow-up with Autism.

Challenges of introducing AAC to children with ASD

Despite the benefits that can be seen by using AAC there are some challenges that will likely be found when working in this population. Some of these may include:

  • A reduced number of motivating topics to talk about
  • Less desire to communicate
  • Sensory differences that make using a system challenging
  • Repetitive movements or use of certain words

These challenges highlight the need for careful selection of appropriate systems and the need for AAC therapy practice of the highest standard.



Research

AAC has been demonstrated to improve the development of social communication function in children with ASD:

Kristy Logan, Teresa Iacono & David Trembath (2016) A systematic review of research into aided AAC to increase social-communication functions in children with autism spectrum disorder, Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 33:1,51-64.

AAC has also been demonstrated to improve the communication skills of individual with ASD in both the adolescent and adult population:

Christine Holyfield, Kathryn D. R. Drager, Jennifer M. D. Kremkow & Janice Light (2017) Systematic review of AAC intervention research for adolescents and adults with autism spectrum disorder, Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 33:4, 201 212.

For further detailed information regarding this topic head to our resources page where you will find links to addition research articles as well as a more detailed response to this topic.

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