Fact sheet on assistive technology in communication issues with Autism,  a common pervasive developmental disorder


Speech development is affected in children diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, which includes autism and Asperger's syndrome. Some may remain mute throughout their lives, though possibly communicating in other ways - images, visual clues, sign language, or typing on a keyboard. Augmentative and alternative communication is the use of visual language systems to assist children with communication skills. It is commonly referred to as assistive technology as well.

Research, information and support has been very slow in many aspects of autism and Asperger's syndrome, and it is certainly true in communication. Augmentative and alternative communication has long been available for people whose communication was affected by a disability, but it has only been adapted for autism in recent years.


Augmentative and alternative communication can help a child to learn the basics of communication before speaking. It can be a great help to parents too, who can bond better with their child, even if communiation is only possible through assistive technology. Parents should note that the use of non-verbal communication systems is not giving up on your child's verbal skills. Assistive technologies can form the foundation of communication skills that may allow verbal communication at a later point.


why Augmentative and alternative communication works

The typical development of a child anticipates that communication will happen in a certain order: listening, speaking, reading, and then writing. Children on the autism spectrum have a different blend of strengths and weaknesses and can be left behind when their development may happen in a different sequence. Children with autism or Asperger's syndrome usually demonstrate strong visual processing skills, so a focus on visual strategies, reading, writing and using a keyboard may be more important than verbal communication to begin with.


The need for assessment

If parents is thinking about using augmentative communication, they should start with an assessment of:

• Current and future communication needs
• Communication techniques in current use
• Other types of communication styles that could be used.


This will often have a multidisciplinary approach as different specialists look at educational, physical, mental and social abilities of the child.


finding good therapists

A good start is to look for a speech therapist/pathologist and ask questions. A professional will always have time to answer parents' questions and understand their desire to seek the best therapist for their child. You should be able to ask about their qualifications and work experience. They should have particular experience with Autism Spectrum Disorders and how they affect communication.


Check to see if they provide a comprehensive service in terms of augmentative and alternative communication, and who the other members of the team will be. There should be a full explanation of how a program will be developed, monitored and amended as required. They should have a range of assistive technologies available, and suggestions on the ones most appropriate for the child after assessment.

Ideally you should be able to speak to other parents they have worked with, as parents using assistive technology are usually keen to help other parents new to the area.


Unfortunately, some parents are unable to afford therapists or may be geographically isolated. Parents often ask whether they can conduct their own interventions, and the answers are usually mixed. Click here to read the Do-it-yourself early intervention fact sheet.


Types of augmentative and alternative communication

As the title suggests, a child who cannot communicate verbally can use an alternative form of communicating, or augment their existing abilities with other strategies.


Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)

This form of augmentative and alternative communication is typically used as an aid for children with autism who are non-verbal. PECS can be used in several ways to aid communication. PECS are typically introduced using pictures of desired objects (such as food or toys). This can be a hand drawn illustration, photo or computer clip-art printed on a sheet of paper. A website at do2learn.com provides free resources for PECS.


When the child wants one of these items, he gives the picture to a communication partner such as a parent, therapist, caregiver, or another child. The communication partner then hands the child the food or toy, thus reinforcing communication. Ultimately, the pictures can be replaced with words and sentence strips (for example; I want cookies).


Many people believe that PECS can also be used to create visual schedules for children this is however factually incorrect. the term PECS does not refer to the individual pictures or icons. PECS is the exchange of the icon as a form of communication, not the picture itself. The same icons that are used for PECS are frequently used for creating visual schedules, but this is not PECS, it is simply using icons to create a visual schedule.


The introduction of PECS can be a long and drawn out process taking months to complete. For a family facing a lifetime with a non-verbal child who is not grasping sign language either, these can definitely be a relief for the lack of communication. PECS typically moves through six stages:


• Teaching the child to spontaneously request an object or activity
• Generalize this skill to other objects and activities, and with other people involved
• Teach the child to disciminate ie. 'what would you like to do?'
• Start to encourage use of setences ie. using the symbols for "I want" "doll"
• Extension of sentence with adjectives ie. "I want" "blue" "doll"
• Encourage the child to comment about things ie. using symbols to say "I can smell dinner cooking".


PECS thus starts with a basic request and eventually forms the basis for conversation, which provides an ideal foundation for verbal skills at a later point.


Interactive language board

Language boards assume the child has some degree of literacy but is not yet speaking. A language board can can be made for different purposes. A common starting point in one for meal times, as food is a good reinforcement for learning new skills. The necessary words are chosen for the activity, in this case, eating and drinking. Words are also needed that allow the child to say 'yes', 'no' or make a comment.


Vocabulary is chosen which drives the activity, that is, gets it started, moving and completed, as well as the objects required for the actual activity and descriptors for giving the child expressive options for commenting, acceptance or refusal.


































The board should be sturdy enough to last, and laminated, especially when food is present! Parents can touch the relevant words as they talk during the meal. Any attempt by the child to communicate should be met with encouragement. Correction of mistakes can be made by guiding the child's hand to the right words.


Communicating through gestures

Some gestures, such as shaking or nodding the head or shrugging the shoulders, are so common that they are generally understood by everyone. Other less obvious, but still easily recognizable, gestures can also be used for communication.


Sign language

These are languages composed of different hand shapes originally developed for people with severe hearing loss or deafness.


Manual signing

Manual signing has long been an effective communication strategy for some children with autism due to its visual nature backing up verbal communication. Signing allows children on the autism spectrum to develop their vocabulary further (Mirenda 2003), although signing does require a certain amount of fine motor control, and it is not understood widely in the community.


Language representation methods

Speech output AAC systems use one or a combination of three basic language representation methods: single meaning pictures, alphabet-based methods, and semantic compaction. An understanding of the performance differences and appropriate choices of method(s) are very important to the effectiveness of the communication system.


Single meaning pictures

Each word in the vocabulary is represented by a different picture. Thousands of pictures are needed for a modest vocabulary size. Meanings must be taught since most words are not naturally represented by pictures.


Clicking this button closes this Autism fact sheet on communication issues

Click here for the full range of autism and Asperger's fact sheets at www.autism-help.org
See the Communication skills page for other strategies to assist communication.
This autism fact sheet is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation.

Speech development is affected in children diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, which includes Autism and Asperger's syndrome, and augmentative communication styles may be required