Low-Tech & High-Tech AAC
AAC can be described in different ways. Understanding these different descriptions will help you know about the types of systems available, as well as help guide your decision-making as to which AAC system might be the best fit.
Types of AAC
Aided systems: Use external products and materials to help a user get across a message. These may include AAC systems such as core word boards, communication books or speech generating devices.
Unaided systems: Use only the skills that are available to that individual and do not need special material or equipment. These could comprise body language, sign language, spoken language or facial expression.
As you can probably tell from these two types of AAC, a different combination is usually used for different intents and purposes. A competent communicator will often use both aided and unaided systems regularly.
Low-Tech & High-Tech characteristics
Low-Tech: These systems are methods of communicating that are not battery powered and are usually cheaper to make. Common examples of lo-tech systems include picture exchanging, printed word boards, communication books & sign language. Also, recorded speech devices (digital) can fall into this category if battery-powered with simple short messages.
High-Tech: These systems rely on mains power & re-chargeable battery packs as they generally use lighted dynamic displays & synthesised voices. They run sophisticated software vocabularies, multiple voices, are fully accessible, & can be thoroughly customised. Operating systems can be Windows, Android or iOS. Liberator specialises in these high-end devices which can eventually lead to real command of language.
Benefits & Disadvantages
|Affordable||No auditory feedback for the user.|
|Relatively easy to create + use if clinical or technical support not on hand||Generally limited in vocabulary, often with a heavy reliance on fringe (nouns)|
|No mains power charging required||Positions of words change in picture exchange systems, removing motor pattern learning.|
|Can use in demanding environments: full sunlight, bath time, beach + if hi-tech device fails||Navigation through levels-based systems or reliance on overlays can be challenging|
|Restrictive, situational pre-determined vocabulary|
|Availability of more vocabulary||Can be heavier|
|Auditory feedback for language learning||Must be charged|
|Can communicate to all groups in the community||More expensive to purchase and maintain|
|Less reliance on communication partner|
|Can talk across distances|
|Can develop automaticity and motor patterns|
|Different options to represent language|
|Computer Access: Connectivity|
|Phone access & SMS|
Low-Tech to High-Tech: myths & challenges
Everyone has the right to access any language system that will meet their needs. High-tech systems provide features that low-tech systems cannot come close to matching and they are available to all individuals no matter their age, perceived language stage, or surmised intellectual level at the time of intervention. High-tech systems can provide:
- Cause & effect level of use
- Consistent verbal models
- Increased independence
- Consistent location of words
- Access to thousands of words
When introduced sensitively & correctly, electronic dynamic-screen, voice-output devices allow users to practice and make the most of their language learning experiences from a very early age.
Any individual, no matter what their age can use high-tech devices as their first port of call. Such devices are able to be used at a cause & effect level. When coupled with the multitude of ways these systems can be accessed, users become empowered to begin their AAC language journey.
There is no evidence to suggest that low-tech systems have to be trialled & experienced before trying out high-tech options. No hierarchy exists. Dynamic display devices can open up communication opportunities to people adjudged to have very limited language & speech development.
Low-tech systems inevitably tend to require more reliance & interaction with formally trained & known communication partners. High-tech systems aim to build independence & self-reliance through establishing more universal modes of inter-change.
It is always prudent & sensible to maintain a low-tech alternative communication system to the high-tech one more frequently used. Although contemporary electronic devices are now far more reliable & durable than previously, failure or unexpected physical damage can deny the user communication in an abrupt manner. A well-practised, familiar, robust low-tech AAC system can provide immediate relief & reassurance.
- Common challenges that arise when an individual starts with low-tech systems include:
- Inconsistent verbal modelling from communication partners
- Inconsistent position of pictures used to exchange or point to in a system
- Great difficulty in communicating across short of long distances
- Significantly increased dependence on communication partner
- Systems developed are generally very noun heavy resulting in poor ability to generalise words across contexts
There is a lot of information to be absorbed when talking about the merits of lo and hi-tech systems. It can be difficult to know exactly what is out there, when to consider different systems and to even comprehend how these systems actually work in practice. Below you will find a link to our resources page and to videos that will provide you with much more detail about these topics along with visual representations.
For academic readings on this topic:
Van der Meer, L., Didden, R., Sutherland, D., O’Reilly, M. F., Lancioni, G. E., & Sigafoos, J. (2012). Comparing three augmentative and alternative communication modes for children with developmental disabilities. Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities, 24(5), 451-468.