AAC and People with Autism

Difficulty generating and understanding language is a common diagnostic criterion for autism. Augmentative and assistive communication (AAC) strategies and equipment may be useful for helping people with autism express themselves. This article summarizes current research into considerations in AAC use for people with autism.

AAC Strategies

Deborah Nunes’ 2008 article summarizing research about AAC interventions reached the following conclusions based on existing research:

  • People with autism tend to respond better to pictures than words for both receptive and expressive language. Use of pictures in a communication strategy can also reduce problem behaviors and increase focus.
  • Using symbols that look like real objects is more effective than using abstract symbols systems such as Blissymbolics.
  • Use of devices that provide speech output promotes vocabulary acquisition and may increase expressive communication. (Ralf Schlosser and Oliver Wendt also found that, contrary to parental concerns, use of speech output devices actually increases the amount that users verbalize, albeit by a modest amount.)
  • Individuals with autism may also have problems with fine motor control, and may have physical difficulty activating an AAC device.

Mohammed Ali Habash suggests that computer-based strategies may be particularly effective for use by individuals with autism, since “[w]hen it comes to social interaction, the computer does not send confusing social messages.” He also mentions that computers, unlike people, provide a level of consistency that people with autism may find motivational.

Technology-based AAC may be used as one of multiple communication strategies. As Joanne Gerenser points out, sign language may be an important backup for times when a user’s AAC device is being repaired.

Some of the features that may be important in an AAC device for people with autism are discussed on the Center for AAC and Autism site.

Mobile Apps

Samuel Sennott and Adam Bowker’s early study of ProLoquo2Go, the first AAC app for iOS systems, argues that both the portability and ubiquity of the iPhone/iTouch made them appropriate AAC devices for people with autism who are ambulatory and have good visual skills; their assessment of the effectiveness of ProLoquo2Go itself is mixed. There is now a wide range of AAC apps, but as of yet no scientific study indicating which are particularly appropriate for individuals with autism; the need for individual evaluation including exposure to multiple programs is unlikely to disappear. However, Howard Shane et al. hail the availability of both portable media and easy-to-download apps as a “paradigm shift” in AAC availability, and ASHA Perspectives devoted a special issue to AAC apps.

AAC for Verbal Individuals

Even individuals who are able and willing to speak may still benefit from some AAC use. For example, some researchers point out that AAC can help teach advanced concepts such as planning and social interaction, and that talking programs can help improve spelling. This point is also made in a number of short videos, posted by parents on YouTube. Issac Says Goodnight is a good example.


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