Resources for Communication Partners

Getting started

AAC Communication 101.

If this is the first time you're communicating with someone with AAC, you may be a little overwhelmed. Everyone with complex communication needs uses AAC differently, but these general guidelines should help you navigate your first interaction regardless of the mode of communication.

  1. Don't be afraid of the AAC. AAC is to aid communication. You have to be willing to play around with language if you want to figure out how to be a competent partner.

  2. If the device has speech output, look at the person not the device. It can be awkward at first, especially if the AAC user isn't completely at ease with the device. Looking at the person will help you see how the user is feeling.

  3. Let your partner take the lead. When people get nervous, they try to bring interactions back to our comfort zone. Your partner is likely more skilled with AAC than you are. Relinquish control to them and see what happens. You may be surprised by the fluency of the communication.

  4. Use AAC with your partner. Allow yourself to get comfortable using the same tactics to communicate that your partner uses. This will allow you to see what communication is like for them.

  5. Be patient, it may take longer. It may take a little longer for your partner to communicate what they need to say. If you're an active partner, you may pick up on context clues to help facilitate the conversation.

If you haven't ever communicated with someone with a speech generating AAC device, this will let you see what the devices are capable of.  

CTEC helped Frank get his new communication device. Now he can easily communicate and express himself. CTEC is an organization in Northern California that helps AAC users.

Being a good communication partner

Tips for supporting the person in your life with an AAC device. 

The Communication Technology Education Center put together a curriculum about AAC communication. STAR, which stands for Supportive Training Active Respect, allows you to experience AAC scenarios with varying levels of competence. After viewing a video, you take a survey to gain a STAR certificate of competency.

The video series has a before and after scenario in a coffee shop that is helpful for new AAC communication partners. In this video, the communication partner does not treat the individual using AAC as if they are a competent communication partner with desires. This is an example of what you DON’T WANT communication to be like.

Krystal is an AAC learner and she goes to a local coffee house with her support person, Beth. Beth does all the talking and deciding, demonstrating a lack of respect, being a director with her own agenda, ignoring communication attempts, focusing on communication board rather than what Krystal wants to say.

In the second video, the communication parter works with the AAC user to make decisions and treats her as a competent communication partner. This is an example of how you want communication to go.

Krystal and her support person, Beth, go to coffee house where Beth follows the strategies of Supportive Training with Active Respect! She models expectant delay, prompting from least to most, deferring to natural consequences, and following Krystal's lead. This video includes a demonstration of how a light tech communication board can utilize core and fringe vocabulary.

Caring for adults

Adults often have unique challenges. Here we discuss tips for navigating use.

For adults with acquired communication issues, using AAC can be a frustrating experience at first. As they learn to communicate through a new mode, they are also mourning their previous ways of communicating. As a communication partner, you'll need to be a patient, active listener. 

Many of these adults will initially dismiss their AAC device as they want to return to their previous mode of communication and not learn a new way of communicating. However, research shows the use of AAC can help benefit adults with language impairments regain some of their expressive language.

It's likely your adult communication partner will be looking to communicate using residual language and additional modes of communication, like gestures, along with their AAC. When speaking with them it is helpful to think about how relevant their AAC is everyday.

Identifying the right AAC device for your family

An AAC solution can be temporary or permanent. Here we discuss what you should be considering as the communication method is selected. 

If someone in your family is getting a device, you'll want to make sure everyone weighs in on decisions regarding the personal and medical care, life choices and goals, and social relationships. You'll also want to consider support options. You are essentially going to be building a team to support these complex communication needs. Your SLP should ask you three questions to guide you through the team seletion process:

  1. Who has the expertise needed by the team to make the best decisions?

  2. Who will be impacted by the decisions?

  3. Who has an interest in participating?

It's important to remember an AAC device is not a personal device. It's a device to help you communicate with others. 

Learning language and AAC at the same time

Those who are learning language at the same time they are learning their device have unique challenges. Here's what you should consider as you support those individuals. 

Many young AAC users may be learning language at their AAC device at the same time. Because of this, you may need to think about how you communicate a little differently. If you're communication partner is unable to spell, they will most likely be relying on symbols to communicate.* Many times, the symbols are paired with words, so the user can speak their message to you. Although they may be using symbols to communicate with you, they may be able to understand what you are saying to them. Work with your partner to figure out what they understand and the best way for them to give and receive messages. 

*If you come across terminology that is not in their device but is necessary for communication, you may need to work with the programmer of the device to help expand their vocabulary.

Adjusting to life with AAC

The adjustment period can be overwhelming to someone with an acquired disorder. 

Adjusting to life with AAC can be overwhelming for someone with an acquired disorder. Just as often, communication partners find AAC difficult because they don't know how the rules of communication work. We find it is helpful for clients to have go to phrases to help describe how communication works with their AAC device. This can put an inexperienced communication partner at ease.  

This video demonstrates how to implement strategies for directing life in different environments.

Communicating when you don't have your device

Dead batteries, forgetting the device, equipment failures... They happen. Help navigating when you're without your preferred method. 

It is always a good idea to have a strategy for a back-up plan. Batteries die. People forget things. Equipment goes bad. These things happen. Knowing how to deal with them is an important part of being a good communication partner. Understanding the wants and needs of the person you're talking with is the most important first element. Second, you need to make sure the back-up is easily implementable. For example,

  • a high tech AAC user who is using an eye gaze system may have to result to a communication board with partner assisted communication through blinking to communicate.

  • someone who is deaf and/or hard of hearing may resort to a notepad and paper instead of a device.

  • someone with a high tech system may need to use an iPad with a communication app installed on it.

Ensure your partner is trained on an alternative mode and make sure you know what that mode is so you can help when the unexpected happens. 

Temporary AAC devices

When the device is temporary, it's important to learn how to be a good partner quickly. 

Many users need an AAC device for only a short period of time. If you're in a hospital or acute setting, the staff may have loaner AAC devices your communication partner can use. 

As a partner, you'll want to ensure that you are empowering the person with complex communication needs to communicate for themselves using their AAC device. For example, if you're talking to a third party and you notice they're ignoring your partner, a gentle reminder that they can answer using the device will help steer the conversation. 


AAC at work

We have some tips for being a good partner with your coworker so you don't make awkward mistakes.

If you have a coworker who uses an AAC device, the best thing you can do is have an open conversation with them about how they like to communicate. 

Scope's Awkward Experts tell us the four most awkward things that happen at work if you're disabled. We all worry about putting our foot our in mouths. But a whopping 40% of people are so worried about getting it wrong that they're actually avoiding taking to disabled people altogether.

There is no need to be awkward.

DC Government wants to End the Awkward.

Expanding communication

Tips for communication partners who are using AAC to expand communication with a partner. 

AAC can be help users who are skilled communicators in one communication modality communicate with others who don't know their communication method. In this situation, the user has adequate communication with those who know them, but needs something if they are talking to someone outside of their social circle or in a different communication setting.

An example of a different communication setting is using a speak generating device for someone who uses sign language to communicate. For example, a back-lit, electronic device could be a helpful tool for someone who uses sign-language in a low-lit situation; they could type their message to their communication partner and play it for the partner and the partner could type messages back.