Communication Devices

Augmentative and Alternative Communication DevicesIn the arena of Communication Devices there are endless options and possibilities.  Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) is the term that encompasses the tools and methodology used to support or replace communication for individuals that have speech or communication impairments.  Because of this broad definition a large range of tools and technology fall into the AAC or communication device category.

As parents of a non-verbal child we have used and leveraged a wide-range of these communication devices and have taken the time in this post to categorize some of the different types and provide product names and descriptions as a resource.  There is no “one” right device and certainly no “perfect” solution.  There are only tools that are “right for the moment”.  Communication is a progression for non-verbal individuals the same as it is for verbal individuals.  Just as a 2yrs old starts with pointing, then single words, then 2+ word phrases so shall the progression for non-verbal communication work.  Each tool provides more and more different functions allowing for increasingly complex communication capabilities.

Below you will see some of the great tools that can help you or a loved one with their augmentative and alternative communication device needs.

Big Mac SwitchBig Mac Buttons and Similar Switches

Buttons and switches are a very good way to get started with basic communication using assistive technology.  The illustration here is a product from AbleNet and allows you to record any sound, adjust the volume, and then when the button is pressed that sound is played.

We used this product with our son initially as fun, recording music and songs like “Happy Birthday”.  We then began using it for core communication with “Yes” and “No” sounds.  We used two different color buttons and recorded “No” in one and “Yes” in the other.  We were then able to work with our son to press the appropriate button when asked relevant questions.

This solution was a great step in the communication process and helped demonstrate his ability to communicate.  Remember to start basic and ask questions or allow for communication that is clear in the beginning steps.  These switches can also be used for turning on and off other devices making the use of these endless for a variety of activities.

PECS Picture Exchange SystemPECS also known as Picture Exchange Communication System

This is a cornerstone of non-verbal communication and you will see it incorporated in a lot of the AAC devices.  I highly recommend getting familiar with this system and if you are just starting out consider visiting the PECS site and learn about some of the processes.  Our son started out with this system around 3-4yrs of age and it was great for very basic communication.  You can use google images to find pictures or use professional icons/images found in this site or at the PECS and other sites.

Picture Exchange Poster BoardOne of the simplest methods for leveraging a Picture Exchange system is the poster method.  Here is the one we created for our son for home use.  We also had a version at school to keep the activities and pictures relevant.

You can see that we simply used pictures from google or icons from a PECS library, laminated the photos and attached them with velcro.  When we first implemented this PECS board we would re-direct our son to the picture.  Example: Our son would pull us to the door indicating he wanted to go for a car ride.  We would then take him to the board, and have him touch (or hand us) the picture of a car.  After a few times of this process he began bringing us the relevant images and over time outgrew this system.

Basic Communication Devices

The next jump up in augmentative and alternative communication devices are units like the ChatBox40. As you can see this device takes the PECS system into a digital device.  There are several companies that make these types of communication devices allowing for different numbers of pictures and different methods for recording and storing your recordings.

Regardless of the device they essentially allow you to use any picture you like, place it into that position, and then record your audio for that picture.  This device moves your communication off the poster board or cards and makes it portable.  Some versions allow you to record multiple layers allowing you to switch out the grid more easily without having to continually update the audio.

Our son did not spend a lot of time using this version of communication, but is was very effective for his core communication.  There are several levels of communication and working from a core and advancing is one of the best approaches.

Advanced Communication Devices

This category of devices is very large and devices range from moderate sophistication to unbelievable sophistication.  The vast majority of products in the market for this level of assistive technology are complete units (software and hardware) as pictured to the left.  A growing number of companies are making iPad apps so I will touch on both and with each remember the functionality and sophistication can range greatly.

The product pictured to the left is called a Springboard.  This company makes a number of devices and the sophistication and range of capabilities can be staggering.  As you can see it is still leveraging some of the picture exchange models but when mixed with a grid and ever advancing vocabulary it quickly becomes memorized by the individual and used very fast.

These devices have been around for several years and can be small and portable like this one or large and more stationery depending on your needs.  When looking at all-in-one devices some of the most prominent companies to look at are Dynavox, PRC (Springboard), and Mayer-Johnson. Each company has several options and can range in price from as little as a few thousand dollars to fifteen thousand dollars.

Our son used this device intermittently for a year and was very quick to learn it.  He was able to not only manage most of the screens but was also able to get into the admin settings which caused a few issues until we learned how to limit access.  This system does a great job of building sentences and allowing for playback.  Our biggest challenge was adding or changing settings.  It works great for extended periods of using the same sets of communication, but we have now moved to a device that allows for faster changes.

urTalker AAC AppiPad Communciation Apps

This is by far the most exciting development in Augmentative and Alternative Communication Devices.  Several companies have developed communication apps for the iPad providing some great flexibility at amazing prices.  Several apps have leveraged the above systems and picture exchange process proving solutions with comparable functionality.

urTalker Pro pictured left is a Augmentative and Alternative Communication App (Assistive Technoogy) that has hundreds of pre-loaded commonly used pictures coupled with the ability to use the camera and mic built into the iPad to add pictures and audio realtime.  These apps allow for easy administration so individuals can quickly customize the system to their needs and update it as they evolve.

We moved our son to iPad AAC apps because of the low cost couple with how easy they are to update and administrate.  Add that with the ability to have other apps, video and music and we hit a home run with our son.  The urTalker App was a great progression for our son and continues to grow with him.  He started with a 2-Grid setting and is currently using 9.

There are a number of great iPad AAC apps.  We have published an article featuring 10 such apps if you are considering that route.  Take a look for more ideas.

There are a lot of great Augmentative and Alternative Communication Devices and Apps available to help non-verbal individuals communicate.  There is not a one size fits all, but hopefully this gives you some ideas where to start along with where you can go.  May you find what works and more importantly help that special someone find a voice.
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