When babies and toddlers have speech that is absent, delayed, or hard to understand, they benefit from the addition of other forms of communication, including signs, pictures, and voice output (buttons or computers that “talk”). These additional forms of communication are referred to as augmentative and alternative communication, or AAC.
Sometimes, parents are afraid that if other ways of communicating are added, kids might not learn to talk as early or as well. However, research has shown that introducing AAC increases speech 89% of the time and never decreases speech (meta-analysis by Millar, Light, and Schlosser, 2006).
Parents and some therapists also might wonder if it’s too early to introduce AAC to a young child. However, a systematic review (a professional article that summarizes the results of many different research studies) of AAC in Early Intervention (Romski, Sevcik, Barton, Hulsey, and Whitemore, 2015) showed that AAC had lots of benefits for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers. The research included in that systematic review showed that introducing AAC helps to improve young children’s language skills in the following ways:
- Increases expressive vocabulary (Adamson & Dunbar, 1991; Barton, Sevcik, & Romski, 2006; Bondy & Frost, 1994; Lüke, 2014; Wright, Kaiser, Reikowsky, & Roberts, 2013)
- Increases multi-‐word combinations and grammatical skills (Binger & Light, 2007; Harris, Skarakis Doyle, & Haff, 1996).
- Increases the functions for which children communicate (Light et al., 1985 a, b, & c)
- Increases children’s conversational turns (Light et al., 1985 a, b, & c)
- Increases the number of back- and- forth interactions between children and their parents (Pennington & McConachie, 1999; Light, Binger, & Kelford Smith, 1994).
- Increases language comprehension (Brady, 2000; Drager et al., 2006)
Other research has shown that introducing AAC can help kids with their behavior and self-regulation skills. For example, studies of found the following benefits of introducing AAC:
- Decreases negative behaviors caused or worsened by difficulty communicating (e.g., in combination with functional communication training (Durand, 1993, Mirenda, 1997)
- Improves transitions between activities (e.g., Dettmer, Simpson, Myles, and Ganz, 2000)
Overall, if children are having trouble communicating because of a speech delay or disorder, using AAC strategies like sign language, pictures, and communication devices can help kids to talk more, develop stronger language and social skills, and improve their behavior. It’s a good idea to start using some of these strategies as soon as possible to keep kids from becoming too frustrated or falling too far behind.
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Barton, A.,Sevcik, R.A., & Romski , M. A . (2006). Exploring visual-graphic symbol acquisition by pre-school age children with developmental and language delays . Augmentative and Alternative Communication , 22 , 10 – 20.
Brady, N.C. (2000). Improved comprehension of object names following voice output communication aid use: Two case studies. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 16, 197 – 204 .
Binger, C. , & Light , J . (2007). The effect of aided AAC modeling on the expression of multi-symbol messages by preschoolers who use AAC . Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 23, 30–43.
Bondy, A.S., & Frost, L.A. (1994). The picture exchange communication system. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 9, 1– 19. Dettmer, S., Simpson, R.L, Myles, B.S., and Ganz, J.B., (2000). The use of visual supports to facilitate transitions of students with autism. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 15:3, 163-169.
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Millar, D.C., Light, J.C., and Schlosser, R.W. (2006). The impact of augmentative and alternative communication on the speech production of individuals with developmental disabilities: a research review. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 49, 248-264.
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Pennington, L., & McConachie, H. (1999). Mother–child interaction revisited: Communication with non-speaking physically disabled children. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 34, 391 – 416.
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Wright, C. A., Kaiser, A. P., Reikowsky , D. I. , & Roberts , M. Y . (2013). Effects of a naturalistic sign intervention on expressive language of toddlers with Down syndrome. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 56, 994–1008.