Blogger Chelsey Roos

Supporting AAC-Users in the Library

October is AAC Awareness Month! AAC stands for “augmentative and alternative communication,” and it’s often used to refer to a tool that can help someone communicate without speech, like a picture board or a tablet with a communication application. It can be as simple as a white board, or as high tech as a computer that can detect the user’s eye movements and translate them to speech. Someone who is non-speaking, or has difficulty speaking, can use their AAC to communicate with others. Let’s learn a little bit about AAC devices and how you can support AAC-users in the library.

What Does an AAC Look Like?

The most common style of AAC device usually has a large variety of pictures and words a user can choose from to say what they want. An AAC device can be high-tech, like a tablet with an application loaded onto it that will read aloud every word the users select. They can also be low-tech, like a Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), where a user uses a board or booklet with paper cards to select what they’d like to say. It’s also common for someone to use a text-to-speech application on a cell phone, or even just pen and paper.

Heading "Different Types of AAC Devices." Two illustrations are shown: one of a picture exchange card system, and one of a tablet with a communication application on it. Smaller text reads "AAC devices can be as high-tech as a computer or tablet used solely for communication, and as low-tech as picture cards cut out on cardstock."

Who Uses an AAC?

Kids, teens, and adults can all use AAC devices. These are helpful for many disabled people, with different needs. Someone with cerebral palsy may use an AAC, as well as someone with other physical disabilities, or cognitive disabilities. Someone who has suffered a stroke, a traumatic brain injury, or a degenerative illness may use one. Many autistic people use AAC devices. Some because they are entirely nonspeaking, and some because they find speaking difficult or have times when they are unable to speak. Some autistic children may use a mix of spoken language, ASL, and their AAC device. It’s estimated that around 2 million people use some kind of supportive communication device in the United States.

Heading "Who Uses an AAC Device?" Several illustrations show a young child using an AAC with an adult, a person in a wheelchair with an AAC, two smiling young adults holding up their AACs, a child wearing their AAC in a sling bag, and an elderly woman displaying her AAC. Smaller text reads "All kinds of people use AAC devices, from young to old. Autistic people, people with physical or cognitive disabilities, and people with degenerative illnesses are some examples of AAC users.

It’s worth noting that high-tech AACs can be very expensive, and insurance often doesn’t cover them. There may be people coming to your library who could really benefit from a dedicated communication tablet, but are unable to afford one. Depending on the community where you work, a high-tech AAC device may be very hard to come by. Mobile communication apps do often go on sale during AAC Awareness Month (October) and Autism Awareness Month (April), but the cost of a tablet or other mobile device can still be prohibitive for many families.

How We Support AAC-Users in the Library

  1. Talk directly to the AAC-user, not their caregiver, parent, or support-person. Be sure that you’re directing your attention to the person, and not to their screen. Firstly, because that’s the polite thing to do, but also because they might have other text or applications open they’d like to keep private.
  2. Assume competence. This means that we trust that they are just as capable as any other library user we meet, and we don’t dumb things down or decide something might be too hard for them. Never assume that someone can’t read, or reads only books for very young children, just because they are using an AAC device.
  3. Be patient. Communicating through an AAC device can be slow and frustrating for the user. Don’t try to guess what they’re saying or interrupt them. Let them take as much time as they need to find their words. Only ask one question at a time, and wait to make sure they have finished the conversation before you walk away.
  4. Ask questions to make sure you’re understanding them properly. It can be very hard to communicate nuance with an AAC, and you want to be sure you’re on the right track.
  5. In a group program, make sure they have time to participate by asking them questions directly and not letting anyone else speak over them. If you’re conducting a program like a book club, send them the questions (including any icebreakers!) in advance so they can prepare answers ahead of time.
  6. And always: ask them what accommodations would be helpful, and then do that. Simple!

There is no one right way to work with someone using an AAC device, because AAC-users are all unique. When it doubt, always treat the person in front of you as an expert on their own needs and abilities.

Today’s blogger is Chelsey Roos. Chelsey has been a member of ALSC’s Advocacy and Legislation committee, and is a children’s librarian for Santa Clara County Library. All images in this post were created by the author in Canva.

This blog relates to ALSC Core Competencies of I. Commitment to Client Group

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