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Some kids living with cerebral palsy have severe speech problems, which make it extremely difficult and sometimes even impossible to communicate orally. Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) can help these children express themselves and connect with family, caregivers, and others.
What is AAC?
Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) is any type of communication aside from oral speech. It can include anything that helps children express themselves. For instance, hand gestures, pictures, facial expressions, and writing a note or typing an email would all be considered forms of AAC.
There are two types of AAC, including aided AAC and unaided AAC. Unaided AAC is any form of non-oral communication that doesn’t involve technology or equipment (waving, using sign language, making faces, etc.)
Aided AAC continues to evolve, and with constantly-changing technology, children with disabilities have many more options to communicate than ever before. Some examples of aided AAC include:
- Communication boards
- Tablets (e.g., iPads)
- Speech-generating devices
- Communication books
Benefits of AAC
Communication is essential for children, regardless of disability. For those that have difficulty expressing needs, ideas, and feelings to caregivers and parents, AAC is an invaluable way to bridge the communication gap. It can also be life-saving. If a child has specific ailments or pains, they must have a way to communicate what hurts to loved ones.
Another benefit of AAC is an increase in learning, which helps children with disabilities stay on the same level educationally, or at least as close as possible to their peers. If children are incapable of communicating effectively, they won’t be able to ask a question if they don’t understand an assignment or what’s being taught.
For children who have physical disabilities that limit mobility, communication boards, and other devices can be mounted to wheelchairs to provide a way for them to communicate while on the go. The devices can also be installed in a way that reaches eye level perfectly for each child.
Is Your Child a Good Candidate For AAC?
Before deciding on AAC and determining which type is best for your child, a pediatrician will generally recommend working with a speech/language therapist and an assistive technology (AT) specialist. These professionals can evaluate the child and discern not only what the problem areas are, but also what type of AAC will be the most beneficial.
Some children may work better with tablets, while others learn faster with communication boards. Some children need to incorporate a series of both aided and unaided AAC into their lives.
Generally, AT professionals and speech/language therapists will look for the following things when assessing a child:
- What cognitive disabilities the child has
- What physical disabilities the child has
- If the child shows motivation and interest in AAC
- If the child shows a keen interest in a particular way of learning
These are just a few of the things that may be assessed when deciding if AAC will work for your child, but there will be other factors to look into, as well.
Critical Findings in AAC Studies
A study on AAC was published by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) entitled, Implementing augmentative and alternative communication in inclusive educational settings: a case study. It reviewed the following key findings after a high school student with cerebral palsy began using AAC:
- The student’s intelligibility increased. 
- The student’s relationship with peers became more enjoyable.
- The school staff became more comfortable teaching the student.
- The student’s socialization increased.
In another study, carried out by AssistiveWare and professors from the University of San Diego and the California State University at San Marcos, researchers studied Apple products (smartphones and tablets) and their benefits related to AAC. The following key findings were determined:
- Up to 80% of AAC users and their families surveyed in the study reported improvement in independence, behavior, and overall well-being 
- Apple’s iOS devices’ AAC apps are beneficial for all ages, ranging from children in the intervention stages of communication to senior citizens.
- Apple iOS devices have been so successful with AAC that the availability of this technology seems to be accelerating quickly.
- Many people may not be using the full range of functions that tablet apps can provide; further studies are needed to see the true scope of capabilities.
Of course, Apple products are just one of the many types of AAC devices that provide communication apps. There are numerous alternatives available, some of which are provided at no charge to children with cerebral palsy and other disabilities that limit communication. To see if your child qualifies, speak with a speech therapist or pediatrician.
The Future of Communication and Cerebral Palsy
Whether through communication boards and tablets, or non-aided AAC such as sign language and using distinct facial expressions, many children with cerebral palsy benefit from AAC. 
As technology progresses, and even more options open up, the future of children with cerebral palsy has never looked brighter.
- Stoner JB , et al. (n.d.). Implementing augmentative and alternative communication in inclusive educational settings: A case study. - PubMed - NCBI. National Center for Biotechnology Information.
Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20497075
- AAC in English-speaking countries: Survey results. (n.d.). AssistiveWare - What will you say?.
Retrieved from: https://www.assistiveware.com/blog/survey-aac-in-english-speaking-countries
- Alignment between augmentative and alternative communication needs and school-based speech-language services provided to young children with cerebral palsy. (10, September). PubMed Central (PMC).
Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3243446/