Augmentative and alternative communication experience important piece of Nebraska SLP master’s program

Augmentative and alternative communication experience important piece of Nebraska SLP master’s program

06 Nov 2017    By Kelcey Buck

In the speech-language pathology profession, AAC is an oft-used acronym used to describe various individualized methods of treatment for patients. But what exactly is augmentative and alternative communication? 

“AAC is not about replacing speech with some piece of equipment,” explained Kristy Weissling, associate professor of practice in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Department of Special Education and Communication Disorders. “AAC is about helping people communicate better. It’s about strategies that help people get their stories told.” 

AAC is classified into three main categories – no tech, low-tech and high-tech. The devices needing electricity fall into the high-tech category, which includes things like smartphones and tablets, and apps for communicating that can be installed on those devices. High-tech AAC may also include dedicated devices that are used only for communication purposes, including speech-generating devices and eye-gaze systems for individuals with motor impairments.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, no tech AAC involves helping individuals find ways to maximize their most successful means of communication.

“No tech is using your natural gestures, facial expressions and intonations to try to augment your message. We might work with someone to just do a better job gesturing or the way they use their voice contours to get their message across. That’s a form of AAC.” 

Weissling defines low-tech as anything without a battery. This category includes using drawing skills and writing word fragments, as well as organizational strategies such as carrying a communication book with commonly used names and places. 

Now in her 15th year as a faculty member at Nebraska, Weissling credits her time as a Husker grad student with providing the foundation for her interest in and knowledge about AAC. Now, she helps current students gain experience with a wide range of AAC methods through the AAC lab located at the Barkley Memorial Center.

“Our AAC lab here helps us train students. It provides a variety of low-tech and high-tech communication methods for individuals who have complex communication needs. As part of our class, students get the opportunity to learn a few pieces of example equipment.”

She points out that the AAC lab at Nebraska even includes an eye-gaze system, where all the person has to do is move his or her eyes while looking at a screen. But the AAC lab isn’t just a place for teaching and learning. It is also widely used for treating patients at the Barkley Speech Language and Hearing Clinic. The equipment in the lab allows clinicians to try different approaches for evaluations and treatment in order to make better decisions about what type of AAC will be most helpful for a person with communication needs. 

“We have that technology in our AAC lab so that we can evaluate people, but also so that our students can learn to run it,” Weissling said. “So, all students, when they leave here, have had experience with an iPad and an app, with a high-tech AAC device that uses a core vocabulary approach, one that uses a whole message-release system, and some that are lighter tech and don’t have dynamic screens.”

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma and the ongoing recovery efforts in the affected areas, Weissling points out the importance of remembering that some victims may use AAC to meet their communication needs.

“When you think about a natural disaster, you want to think about the fact that people with complex communication needs might be involved in that and are going to need special support,” Weissling said. “USSAAC (the United State Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication) is working to ensure that those people are getting the equipment that they need and that they get the electricity they need to keep those devices charged.”

From Sept. 1-Dec. 31, all donations to USSAAC are being designated to provide AAC tools and devices and support services to people affected by Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma. To learn more about the USSAAC and their work to support people affected by the hurricanes, visit

Special Education and Communication Disorders