Collaboration Corner: AAC & AT: 5 Tips, Myths and Truisms



Look around at every stop light and you will see the soft addictive glow of smartphones. Minivans off for a family vacation are burgeoning with tablets and some other thumb-numbing form of entertainment.  For more particular consumers, any technology prefaced with an “i” will do.

For people with complex communication needs, tools for learning and speaking have become more affordable and accessible.  But this easy access is not without its challenges.

It’s true that augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) platforms have made it into the cool kid circles, but this can make it more confusing for families and therapists to make informed decisions. Beyond You Tube and Candy Crush, it is important to remember the why and how of AAC and assistive technology (AT). Here are some points to ponder before getting too bedazzled.

  1. “AT and AAC are the same thing.” Not so much. While AAC falls under the umbrella of assistive technology, it requires a specific skill-set. Just as “related service provider” or “allied health services” includes SLP services, I would not assume the job of my physical therapy colleagues and start recommending orthotic devices. Same with AAC and AT; both tools aid and assist, and include low tech (such as a pencil grip, picture schedules) and high-tech interventions (anything that plugs in). The difference here is who is involved: AT includes a wide range of professionals well-versed in making recommendations, from special education teachers to AT certificate holders. AAC does not. In AAC, the “C” stands for communication. It is within our scope of practice per ASHA guidelines. As far as I know, it’s not under the domain of other disciplines. Period.
  2. “I don’t get it, he has an ipad, he should be able to (fill in your random ability here).” A large reason for device “abandonment” is a mismatch between the tool and the user. As SLPs your job is to consult with other experts to make sure it fits the child’s needs in terms of accessibility; fine motor, vision, and positioning are just a few considerations. AT, particularly high-tech AT, requires additional considerations, with the primary focus being, does it aide and assist?
  3. “Everybody has one.” ‘Nuff said. Social pressure should not guide recommendations. AAC is prescriptive. I know it can be difficult, but stay strong and focused on what is appropriate and effective.
  4. “He is so good at using technology, so then why can’t he…?”  My 10 year-old can use keys to unlock the door, but I wouldn’t give him the keys to drive to the store and pick up milk. Technology is a tool. AAC is a tool that requires explicit teaching. SLPs and parents are teachers that guide the process. Here is where it is important for us to educate, model and educate some more. As evidence-based practitioners, we need to take data. Data guides us on what’s working to guide what needs to be changed. For my students with autism spectrum disorder, it has been so helpful working with, and learning from, certified behavioral specialists, and come up with a system that everyone can use.
  5. “She uses it at school, and home is a time to relax, not work.” Consider the social circles of communication partners described by Deanna Wagner and colleagues (2003):
    diagram(adopted from Wagner, Daswick & Musselwhite, 2003)

    Becoming a confident communicator means practice: practice at home, practice with friends and friendly acquaintances, familiar and unfamiliar people, and within the context of different places. Don’t aim for perfection. Just aim for opportunities to practice!

Kerry Davis EdD, CCC-SLP,is a speech-language pathologist in the Boston area, working with children who have significant communication challenges. She conducts trainings and workshops, and serves as a volunteer speech pathologist and consultant for Step by Step Guyana, a school for children with autism in South America. The opinions expressed in this blog are her own, and not those of her employer.

Apps with Elders


I am a tech savvy person. Use of technology is integrated into my life, and I am always learning something new. Currently, I am learning basic coding and web design to help private practice owners with their websites. Your website should tell your story and technology can make that happen. Perhaps I was a little naive, but it never occurred to me that maybe I should not use an iPad in my work with my geriatric patients in the SNF setting.

In the SLP social media communities I saw many SLPs using iPads or other tablets with their school or pediatric clinic caseloads. I saw what they were doing and thought, “Hey, I could do that with my patients.” And so I did. A few years ago when I got my CCC’s I gifted an iPad to myself.

And then I started using my iPad in therapy. There were a few bumps along the way, but I am still using it today. The iPad will by no means do therapy for you, but it is an excellent tool.

Five Tips to make using an iPad in therapy easier

Be confident to reduce the intimidation of technology. I start by asking if a patient has used an iPad. Then I briefly explain that it is a “little computer”, and we are going to use it to have a little fun in therapy. I gloss over the technology aspect and go straight to the fun. And then I choose an easy but interesting game, so they will have success when they are learning to use the tablet.

Use a stylus. A stylus is a pen-like instrument that the tablet will recognize similar to a fingertip. I pick them up for super cheap at stores like Marshalls or Ross. Some of the ladies I work with have gorgeously lacquered long fingernails. This almost always causes a problem, since tablets respond to fingertip taps rather than fingernail taps. A stylus will solve this problem.

Make it fun. Some of the games and apps can be quite challenging (just as any other task). When frustration starts to rise, I remind my higher level patients that we are just experimenting. If the solution or answer is not correct, we just figure out why and try something else. This approach seems to ease frustration. With my lower level patients, I do not allow that point of frustration to be reached. I use errorless learning and vanishing cues to increase success rate.

Keep your client relaxed. Because it is an unfamiliar technology there can be some anxiety about using it. I watch my patient’s body language. Is their brow furrowing, are their shoulders creeping up, are they tapping the stylus with great force? Sometimes I use subtle cues to help them improve insight into how they are feeling. Other times overt. These are great moments to talk about the effect of emotions (including anxiety) on cognitive function. Then I teach the strategy of doing something less taxing during these moments and moving back to more challenging tasks when they are feeling calmer.

Get a case. Get a case that allows you to prop up the tablet at different angles. This is really helpful for reducing the glare caused by different patient positions as well as making the tablet more accessible to those with mobility impairments.

Favorite Adult SLP Apps

Memory Match: If you are looking for an app to exercise use of memory strategies (visualization, association, verbalization) then Memory Match might be an app to check out. It’s $0.99 and available for iPad and Android. This is only suitable for clients that are able to generalize memory strategies and need activities to learn strategies.

ThinkFun Apps: Rush Hour and Chocolate Fix are great problem solving brain teaser apps that require use of deductive reasoning and logic for visual tasks. First, we identify the problem. Then, we work backward to solve it.

Tactus Therapy: This company makes some great apps. I have several, but my favorite is Conversation TherAppy. It is so versatile. I seldom use the scoring function of the app. The app has picture stimuli and a variety of prompts to target specific skills. I love not having to carry around a deck of picture cards. Have you dumped a box of stimuli cards on the floor? I have, too many times to count.

Google: Access the Google search engine via Chrome or Safari for endless possibilities. Do you have a client working on word finding tasks and needs a visual cue? Google it. Need a restaurant menu or a prescription label as a stimulus for functional questions? Google it. And I’ve been known to use it as a task motivator. Do your dysphagia exercises, then we’ll look up information about moose. (True story.)

Dropbox: Scan those 3-inch binders full of worksheets, protocols, and other information. Create PDFs and put them into Dropbox and have them anywhere you go with your iPad.  If you buy digital versions of books or tests to use on your iPad you will resolve the problem of original documents getting raggedy.

If you have an iPad or another tablet at home and haven’t used it for therapy, I recommend checking out what it can do. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Rachel Wynn, MS CCC-SLP, is speech-language pathologist specializing in geriatric care. She blogs at Gray Matter Therapy, which strives to provide information about geriatric care including functional treatment ideas, recent research, and ethical care. Rachel’s projects include: Gray Matter Therapy newsletter, Research Tuesday, and Patient Education Handouts. Find her on FacebookTwitter, or hiking with her dog in Boulder, Colo.