I Bought An AAC App… Now What?

I Bought An AAC App… Now What?

 by Dr. Robin Parker


I am once again so excited to be writing about AAC & AAC apps.  With the proliferation of AAC apps, it seems that many people quickly get or want to get an AAC app for their child with an autism spectrum disorder.  It is awesome and amazing to see so many people who need AAC begin to have access to AAC. But once there is accessibility, it is not always readily apparent what to do and it is like any technology or gadget, if you don’t learn how to USE it, it could become like the ‘proverbial treadmill clothes hanger’ or abandoned musical instrument.

I have had the extreme pleasure of writing for the AAC Appy Mall before.  In the post, Let’s Talk About AAC & AAC Apps , some basics and underlying philosophies of AAC were presented along with a beginning AAC app list.  This post focuses on some of the specific teaching strategies for AAC.  Once you have an AAC app, here are some strategies that will help you become an effective AAC facilitator and your child to become a more competent AAC user. If you are planning on getting an AAC app, definitely check out the previous AAC & App post to make an informed decision on app purchase and/or consult an AAC professional or educator.

Teaching Strategies for Using AAC Apps or

Build A AAC Teaching Strategy Toolkit


Aided Language Input (ALI)- We can not say enough about the power of ALI.  ALI is the strategy of modeling language by activating/pointing to key words/symbols on the AAC system as you speak (in this case, the AAC app).   We are asking our learners to communicate through their AAC app. But, if they never see it modeled how will they know how to use it.  In the best situation, the app can be added to the adult’s device but if there is only one device, then feel free to use the learner’s app/communication display.  ALI is helpful in many ways. It clearly is modeling but also lets the facilitator become familiar with the location of vocabulary on the app, it let’s the facilitator know what additional vocabulary may be needed (because it is not there when it is needed for modeling), and it also slows the facilitator down which is often a good thing for new AAC communicators.


Opportunities for Frequent Active Participation- Active participation is the concept that the learner needs to do more than listening. They need to have opportunities to initiate and respond to communication. They need to have specific opportunities to ask questions, answer questions, ask for things, refuse things, explain, vent, and even argue.  Specific opportunities can also be called ‘communication temptations’. Communication temptations are structured situations designed to ‘entice’ communication without asking a question. They help a learner to become an initiator.  It is fairly easy to entice a request (put a favorite toy or food in a sealed plastic jar), but it is just as important to entice other communication functions such as commenting or complaining as well (dress up in a funny hat, or change the position of furniture,  etc..)

Meaningful Language Activities- Use real experiences to model AAC and to prAACtice AAC.  Teaching AAC does not involve a ‘series of exercises’ or  isolated ‘homework’. Look to your general daily activities for inspiration. Cooking, cleaning, bathing, eating, playing, holiday preparation, walking, the possibilities are endless. Then embed opportunities to use ALI and specific active participation opportunities. Activities that are especially fun (or the opposite) provide a perfect platform for teaching AAC app use

Meaningful Feedback: Language Expansions & Specific Reinforcement- There needs to be specific and meaningful feedback when the learner makes attempts at using the AAC app. This is positive reinforcement but goes way beyond the ‘good job’. Reinforcement is about more than increasing self-esteem. It is about learning more language and going to the next level. To do this, feedback should first involve honoring the communication intent and then providing a language expansion. The positive reinforcement is honoring the communication intent (giving the book, moving out of the way, stopping an undesired action- no need to say “good job”).  At the same time, provide an AAC app language expansion.  The expansion is the AAC modeling of a more complex language concept.  It would look like this:  Learner- says “candy” using the communication book, Facilitator uses aided language input to say “more candy” or “big piece” or any other expanded version of the initial communication.  A general rule of thumb is that  if the learner uses 1 word/picture symbol spontaneously, provide an expansion of 2 words, if the learner uses 2 words spontaneously, provide an expansion of 3 words, and so on… There are times we also need to provide specific reinforcement for a skill or process. Depending upon the goal, we may want to be specific about remembering to opening to the AAC app ‘ALL by THEMSELVES’, or ‘for SCANNING through a  FEW Pages to tell a message’.  We try and make the communication and reinforcement as natural as possible, but the combination of language expansions and specific reinforcement will help facilitate learning.

Language Facilitation Strategies- Use the strategies of:  Recasting, Scaffolding,  Expansions, and More. Recasts serve to add or correct information without obstructing the natural flow of communication.  Recasting is another form of modelling. The recast occurs when the facilitator modifies a learner’s utterance by adding new or different grammar (syntactic) or word meaning information (semantic) information.  Think of it as the facilitator repeating the ‘Right Thing’ or a ‘New Thing’.  Do Recasts with your AAC app (ALI- model the recast using the AAC app). Scaffolding is a verbal and visual strategy that has the facilitator build upon prior knowledge of the learner in order for the learner to integrate a new concept  or skill.   The scaffolding supports information just beyond the level of what the learner can do alone. Scaffolding helps maintain and extend conversations. Scaffolding helps the learner add vocabulary, language concepts, or  functional communication to their repertoire.  It is similar to scaffolding on a building. It is a temporary support until the job or activity is completed. Follow learners communication/language lead or interest. For language scaffolding, use visual and verbal structure to guide the learner to new communication and language information.  Use ‘thinking aloud’ types of narration to provide new information.  Expansions or Add a Word strategy takes what the learner says spontaneously, and the facilitator models a longer (by 1 word) acknowledgement. There is no requirement that the learner repeat the model, but it is more likely the next time (or many times after that) the learner will use a longer utterance. Use ‘thinking aloud’ types of narration with the AAC app to provide new linguistic information.

A little about Prompting- As you do some or all of the above strategies, go slow, wait……. see if your child begins to access the device. Use prompting such as pointing to the communication grid/app and see if they go to the specific cells they need to communicate, if not gesture to a possible specific word/cell, if needed it is ok to do some physical prompting if it is readily acceptable to your child and it enhances the communication interaction. If your child says some words using natural speech and the words are easily understandable, they do not then have to go back and say the word on the AAC app, but you can use the AAC app to model an expanded utterance and then the next time a similar situation occurs, use a wait & signal prompt (wait with an expectant look) to see if they add an extra word.  AAC users often combine natural speech with AAC speech. Sometimes just seeing the visual language, is enough to help with natural speech access.

The best way to get started with AAC app teaching is to begin by trying out different teaching tips, strategies, and resources and find out what works best.   Each communication dyad (communicator & communication partner) is different so the combination of strategies that will work will vary but at the core of the teaching process, there should be fun, motivation, and of course progress.

Resources to Learn More:                                                                                                     Here are some parent blog posts who illustrate  SHINING EXAMPLES of teaching AAC to their children.  They may or may not be using apps but the teaching strategies remain the same.

The Learning Process- Getting There (For Adult Facilitators)

  • “I know you said to try and honor the symbolic request with the picture symbol but how many times a day do I have to go to McDonalds”?  [They had been there 5 times that day!!]

  • “I taught him to use adjectives in a full sentence so quickly-Amazing! I put him in the car, turned on the heater, and modeled one time- ‘make the car cooler’ and he got it! [Brave Mama to do this in the midst of a Florida summer!]

  • “Even though she just started elementary school, I knew middle school would come so fast. That’s why I set up lockers instead of bins in the playroom and taught the words on her system to go with the whole middle school locker experience.” [Wish I would have thought of that!]

  • “Thanks so much for letting him continue at therapy. He has been kicked out of so many places, but by giving him the opportunity to use communication supports to say  ’I want to play alone’, he now doesn’t most of the time and he can communicate so many things.”

  • “I didn’t realize the ‘Wendy’s’ symbol was gone from his system. He kept telling me ‘windy’ from his weather page. I tried to really listen from his point of view and then I realized we just passed Wendy’s. It hit me how sophisticated his communication is becoming.” [You and me, both!]

  • “He stands by this bag with his toileting items at school to let them know he has to go to the bathroom. Can that be one of his object communication symbols?” [Great idea, Mom! By the way, can you come guest lecture in my class tonight?]

  • “You remember my husband, the one who thought this AAC stuff was not really going to work? Well, he’s been watching our son in communication therapy and now he’s pestering me when I forget to bring his AAC device/supports to the dinner table.”

About Author

Dr. Robin Parker is a Program Professor and Clinical Supervisor in the Graduate Programs in Speech, Language, and Communication at Nova Southeastern University.  She also is the Senior Director of the University of Miami-Nova Southeastern University Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (UM-NSU CARD) at NSU.

Dr. Parker works with children and adults who have significant communication difficulties due to autism spectrum disorders.  She specializes in using augmentative and alternative communication strategies and technology to facilitate communication and language skills.  She believes ALL children CAN learn communication, language, and literacy skills if they are given appropriate visual supports, evidence based teaching strategies, and treated with a positive interaction style and high expectations.

Dr. Parker blogs with a colleague at PrAACtical AAC- Supports for Language Learning.For more prAACtical AAC information, please check out PrAACticalAAC.org

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