What are the stages of communication development in AAC?
The stages of communication development in AAC move from an emerging communicator to an independent communicator. When considering these stages, we want to figure out where the person is starting. An emerging communicator is really not using symbolic communication to communicate, or they are just beginning to. Basically, they are not using symbolic communication to communicate things that they want or things that they need to interact socially. They don't have a large vocabulary of symbols yet because they're just learning them. Emerging communicators may not understand cause and effect, meaning when they touch a picture symbol or the touchscreen of a symbol they don’t realize they are communicating (i.e., “When I touch this button something happens.” “When I touch this button I get something.”).
Next, is the wants and needs communicator. This individual is using symbolic language to communicate wants and needs or to make requests. The vocabulary on their AAC system is primarily to make requests for things that they want and the things that they need. A wants and needs communicator might have quite a few nouns on their board to communicate some basic wants and needs: I want a cookie. I want a cracker. I want to swing.
The next level is context-cue. When an individual is at the context-cue level, they're ready to learn language. You've established requesting behavior so they know how to do that and now it's time to move them forward. Context-cue communicators are beginning to combine symbols to create sentences, answer questions, and ask questions. They're starting to use language for social purposes. But they are also still relying heavily on context and cues to communicate. They do okay in environments where they're really familiar or when they have a communication partner to provide them with support but struggle a bit more when they're on their own.
The next level of communication independence is transitional. At this stage, individuals are becoming more independent and are gaining more complex language skills that they're using for many different tasks. Their social skills are really expanding and they have a variety of conversational skills. We all know that a lot of language skills are needed to participate in a conversation. Transitional communicators are becoming more independent so that they can reach that final stage of an independent communicator.
It is important to understand this continuum. It helps us know where an individual is and where we're going with them in intervention. It also helps provide some direction of the skills that need to be built to get the individual to the next level of communication.
Please refer to the SpeechPathology.com course, Strengthening Students' Core Vocabulary for Powerful Communication, for more information on choosing vocabulary for students' augmentative/alternative communication (AAC) systems that will promote communication success across environments and communication partners.