Supporting Children’s Voices through Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC)

In honor of 25 years of the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA), this week we have the pleasure of introducing Melinda Snodgrass. Melinda is a doctoral student in the Department of Special Education at the University of Illinois. Prior to returning to graduate school Melinda worked as an elementary special education teacher.

Melinda’s interests and current work focus on children who cannot use speech to communicate and instead need to learn other tools to express their unique thoughts, feelings, wants, and needs. Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) is critical to giving these children a voice. For young children who use AAC, many of the decisions about their voice are made by adults, as the grown ups often get to pick the AAC system and the words and messages to put on that system.

We asked Melinda, “What can we do (and avoid doing) to make sure we support children’s voices through AAC without infringing on their autonomy and unique identities?”  And here’s what she said:

Here’s a quick Top 5 list of ways to support autonomy and self-determination in children who use AAC:

  1.  Work as a team! — Having partners in this work will help ensure that the child is able to express his or her own voice through AAC.
  2. Select an AAC system that meets the child’s (and family’s) needs and honors the child’s preferences. — Help the child try different types of AAC systems (like an iPad and picture exchange) to figure out what works best.
  3. Include and teach words and messages that give the child the most bang for their buck. — Especially during the early stages, using core vocabulary (like “more” and “done”) gives the child the power to communicate across many situations while their vocabulary is developing.
  4. Make sure the AAC system is always within the child’s reach. — It can be so tempting to take an AAC device away from the child when s/he is babbling with it and disrupting other activities. BUT, that device is the child’s voice; to take it away is to violate the child’s human rights so be thoughtful about how to manage those situations.
  5. Respond to the child’s AAC use just as you would respond to a child’s speech. — Just as you would with a young child who is playing with early speech, respond and expand on the messages the child expresses with their system. In this way, you are honoring their voice and their right to be heard as they develop language and operational skills.

For more information, Melinda recommends checking out these resources:


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