two females using ipad on table for augmentative communication

Learning to Speak: When AAC Partners with Verbal Communication

We wrap up Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) Awareness Month with a look at how AAC can partner with verbal speech.

Most children develop a spoken vocabulary by age two, and are talking in short sentences by two and a half. A toddler with few to no speech skills should be tested for possible neurodevelopmental or hearing disabilities.

If a disability is diagnosed, doctors may recommend AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) technology to reduce frustration and misunderstandings. But when a child is still at “learning to talk” age, parents often have misgivings. If their child starts relying on a text-to-speech device, will the child lose all interest in practicing verbal speech—and lose all chances of learning to talk that way?

dad and older brother helping young girl communicate using ipad

The Both–And Approach

Actually, that almost never happens: small children are eager to learn a variety of skills. It’s when they are placed under unnecessary stress—such as pressure to “talk like everyone else”—that learning ability suffers.

Professional coaching helps families find the best approach for each individual. “I talk extensively with parents about supporting all forms of communication,” says Daryn Ofczarzak, BridgingApps team member and experienced speech pathologist. “Many of my therapy kids use speech-generation devices when sitting in one spot, and sign language during active play when the device is out of reach; plus, they have goals that directly address verbal talking. All of these are equally valid, and if a child says something verbally, I’m not going to insist they repeat themselves on a device.”

“I encourage parents to think of AAC as a tool,” adds Walter Prescher, BridgingApps Digital Navigator. “Each person has different abilities. And from my own observations, AAC helps solidify verbal skills. One of my sons is a gestalt language learner: he naturally memorizes and repeats phrases rather than individual words. An AAC device helps him break down phrases to learn words and use them in other contexts. It’s also helped build his vocabulary by making connections between the symbol for a word and the word itself.”

Other Advantages of Multifaceted Communication

Another common misconception is that only those completely lacking physical speech need AAC. There are many people who have verbal skills, but are unable to use them for long periods or in certain settings.

“A speaker’s voice may get tired easily,” says Daryn Ofczarzak, “or be hard to hear through a mask. A person can have better speech-muscle tone on one day compared to another. You’ve probably had times yourself when you lost your voice and wrote down messages. It’s always nice to have a backup, and while not everyone needs a high-tech computer with a full vocabulary, that’s an essential option for some people. At our BridgingApps tech labs, we help people find a range of options that fit them and their lifestyles.”

Daryn’s favorite recommendation: “There’s a great parent’s app called Pathways for Core First, made by TobiiDynavox. I suggest it to all my client families. The app is free to download and has helpful how-to videos, along with great activities and a resource list.”

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