Communication Series: More to life than speaking…

Communication Series: More to life than speaking…

Dynavox AAC Device keyboard-1094833_960_720 PECS Book

Between 25% and 40% of autistic people do not use verbal communication (Tager-Flusberg, Paul and Lord, 2005; CDC, 2015). Some autistic people will remain non-verbal throughout their entire lives, but is doesn’t mean they cannot communicate. Finding a means of communication that works is arguably one of the most important things in the life of an autistic people (alongside general safety and survival needs such as eating, drinking etc.). Without communication you cannot let other people know what you want or need, you cannot make your own choices, and you cannot engage in socialising with friends and peers.

In 2012 the National Autistic Society launched a Facts and Myths campaign – one myth that they brought up was that autistic people prefer their own company and do not want friends. They then counteracted it with survey results from the UK where 65% of autistic people surveyed responded that they would like more friends. So whilst developing communication is important for requesting, it goes far beyond that.

So, what can someone use to communicate beyond speech? Well, when you start to think about it there’s actually quite a lot out there. All the forms of communication out there that do not involve speech come under the general term of Augmented and Alternative Communication (AAC) which is a term you will probably see a lot on this blog. Some examples of AAC (not to be taken as a conclusive list) are:

  • Sign language (e.g Language specific ones: BSL, ASL. Modified: Sign-a-long, Makaton)
  • Body Language and Gestures
  • Writing
  • Typing
  • Picture Exchange Communication Systems (PECS)
  • Communication Boards
  • Picture and symbol apps and devices
  • Text to Speech Apps and devices
  • Letter Boards
  • Word and letter selection (e.g Rapid Prompting Method)

As I said, the above list isn’t a conclusive list, but does include most of the more common AAC methods. Some autistic people will use one or two methods, others will use a combination from across multiple methods, others will create a kind of hybrid new system by using bits and pieces from different methods.

One of the first challenges is working out which system is going to work best for the autistic person in your life. There are going to be a number of factors that impact upon this (which I will discuss in depth in later posts) but to just touch on it now:

  • Physical limitations – fine motor skills may make signing difficulty, or individual finger use difficult for pointing or typing, or pincer grip for picking up PECS cards.
  • Symbol recognition – if someone doesn’t realise that symbols or photos are meant to symbolise an event or item then the use of PECS or electronic devices could be confusing.
  • Concentration – sitting and writing or typing can require an enormous amount of concentration or focus and someone with difficulties concentrating or remaining in one place may find the use of a more mobile method easier.

As before, this is not a complete list. Generally speaking though, the best way to find out if a method will work for the autistic person you know is to try them. It is best not to make assumptions about whether an autistic person will be able to use these methods without trying first, to be honest the phrase “it’s best not to make assumptions” is probably a good one to remember when you’re thinking about autism in general.

Of course it’s easy to say “teach him to communicate”, or “try these AAC methods with her“, or “you need to teach them to communicate”, but it’s not as easy to actually do. Courses and training are expensive, books are expensive, teachers and professionals don’t always know about the different methods, and it can be a very long process. But it’s a worthwhile one, and I don’t think that knowledge should be hidden away, only accessible if you can afford it.

Apologies for this first main post being a informational/introductory type post but I felt it was important to address the general topic of AAC before jumping into specific methods. I will talk in-depth throughout this series about all the AAC methods listed above (and any others I have forgotten to list or come across) and will post a more specific communication post later this week.


CDC (2015)

Tager-Flusberg. H, Paul. R, Lord C.E. (2005) Language and communication in autism. In: Volkmar F, Paul R, Klin A, eds. Handbook of Autism and Pervasive Developmental Disorders. Vol 1. 3rd ed. New York: Wiley; 335-364.

The National Autistic Society (2012)

Photos courtesy of Amazon UK, PECS United Kingdom, and Dynavox. (No affiliation)

Disclaimer: The opinions and information provided in this post are my own, and based on personal, educational, and work-based experience. They do not reflect the opinions of any of the authors of the content referenced in this post. I am not affiliated or supported by any organisation, and this is meant to be an educational series of posts. The information posted here is not a substitute for advice and information provided by your own GP, speech and language therapist, occupational therapist or other professional in the field of autism, and should not be taken as such.


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