Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) at I CAN’s Meath School

Jessie Luckins, Senior Speech and Language Therapist and Aided Communication Coordinator at I CAN‘s Meath School, spoke to us about the importance of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) and how it works to aid and develop communication for pupils throughout the school.

What is AAC?

Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) is anything that is used to help problems with speech, and ranges from gestures and pictures to computer technology.  Whether we realise it or not, each of us use AAC all the time – how often do we wave goodbye? Shrug our shoulders when we don’t know? Or point to a picture in a book or on our smart-phone to show what we mean?

AAC at Meath School

Many of the children at Meath School use combinations of different communication methods to support their difficulties with speech and language which include different types of AAC.

Meath School categorise ACC as low-tech and high-tech methods.  Low-tech methods involve using pictures and symbols and communication books.  High-tech means anything that uses a power source.  For example a device that speaks when a child touches an image. These are called Voice Output Communication Aids (VOCA).

What you see on most of Meath School’s VOCA’s is a grid made up of ‘cells’ each containing a symbol or picture (with a word alongside).  When you press or touch the word or picture the VOCA plays the word aloud.  Children can choose words on the grid to put together a sequence and then press play on the VOCA to speak the sentence.  The more high-tech VOCA’s have links to other grids for choosing different words and can contain a larger vocabulary.  The grids and vocabulary are personalised and more words and pictures/symbols can be added.

So who might use VOCA? And when? 

Children who find producing speech really difficult, so that they are often not understood, may use VOCA. These children may have difficulty combining words into sentences and may know what they want to say but struggle to think of the exact word.  VOCA can be used at any time, perhaps during snack time to talk about something that happened earlier in the day, or during class lessons that require specialist topic vocabulary.

The younger children at Meath School often use a VOCA to say what they would like at snack time before going out to play.  Choosing the words for “I want apple (or banana) and water (or milk) please” on the VOCA helps them to be understood, make a choice, construct a sentence, join in the social group with their friends and shows them that they can communicate in order to get what they would like. A win win situation all round!

The older children at Meath School use VOCA for an activity called ‘news group’. At news group they talk, share stories and ask each other questions about what they did at the weekend, using their individual VOCA’s to facilitate communication.  Watching a news group take place last week, I noticed one child was able to answer a question about who went with her to Legoland using the VOCA to provide the names – she used her speech as well but the VOCA ensured the difficult names were understood by others.  Another child, with less speech than some of the others, was able to excel by helping a classmate to find the vocabulary she wanted on her VOCA and assisting another to spell out a vocabulary item not in his VOCA so that the device could speak it.  The child’s pride and pleasure in being able to help her friends was obvious and so beneficial for her self esteem.

The children’s difficulties and skills vary enormously, but VOCA technology allows them to get their message across so that they can ask for what they want, explain what they know and share their experiences.  Technology enables many Meath School children to communicate!