In the last decades, highly sophisticated augmentative and alternative communication systems (SAAC) have been developed based on the use of electronic devices such as mobile phones. However, these methods have existed since the beginning of history and sometimes require nothing more than facial expressions or hand gestures.

What is Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC)?

The concept of “augmentative and alternative communication” is used to talk about any kind of non-verbal communication method that can be used to convey thoughts, needs, requests, etc. In this sense augmentative and alternative communication can replace speech or add information to it when it is insufficient.

Therefore, following this definition, augmentative and alternative communication is a very wide and varied set of techniques, and all human beings make use of it to some degree. For example, our gestures and facial expressions, the tone of voice we use when speaking or the emoticons we use in chats are examples of this type of communication.

However, the term is usually applied almost exclusively to communication support systems designed for people who have difficulty expressing themselves through speech. Some representative augmentative and alternative communication systems (SAAC) are graphic sign boards and electronic voice devices.

Among the disorders in which augmentative and alternative communication is useful and which fall within the scope of psychology are autism spectrum disorders, intellectual functional diversity, Parkinson’s disease, cerebral palsy, evolutionary dyspraxias and aphasias (linguistic difficulties due to brain lesions).

While augmentative and alternative communication systems have existed at least since Ancient Greece, when such methods were applied in cases of deafness, the SAACs as we know them today began to develop in the 1950s, coinciding with general technological progress and increased awareness of disability.

Types of Alternative Communication Systems (ACS)

Augmentative and alternative communication systems are generally divided according to the complexity of the additional instruments they employ. Thus, we find those CABA systems without technology (such as sign language), those with low technology and those with high technology , that is, those that depend on the use of electronic devices.

1. No technology

There are a large number of augmentative and alternative communication methods that do not require any additional instruments or equipment, but are based exclusively on the human body itself. Thus, these methods may include vocalizations, hand gestures, facial expressions, eye movements, etc.

Sign language can be considered an alternative communication system lacking technology. This method, which is very useful for the communication of people with hearing difficulties and varies according to the country of origin, has also been successfully used to study the linguistic abilities of non-human primates.

2. Low-tech

Augmentative and alternative low-tech communication systems (also called “assisted communication”) are those that rely on the use of non-electronic instruments. This is the case of boards with images, words or letters, as well as other similar instruments that are based on the substitution of oral language by specific objects .

3. High-tech

Unlike low-tech CCAA, this type of method uses electronic support tools. Most of these systems generate language artificially, either in auditory format or as text , but their complexity varies greatly, as they include simple devices with buttons and sounds but also very sophisticated instruments.

Within this type of augmentative and alternative communication systems, it is important to highlight that technological advances in recent years have favoured the use of communication support applications for mobile phones, laptops and tablets. The practicality and ease of access of these methods explain their great popularity.

Applications of SAACs in psychology

SAACs are relevant to several branches of psychological science, including clinical, health, educational and developmental psychology. In addition to the applications we will mention, these systems are also used in people with sensory deficits such as blindness and deafness , which were the core of their development.

Children with autism spectrum disorders can benefit greatly from augmentative and alternative communication systems to overcome their language difficulties, mainly in their pragmatic facet. The complexity of SAACs will depend on the severity of the case, although often a system without technology may be sufficient.

One of the groups of individuals in which this type of method is most frequently used are those with developmental disorders affecting communication and language skills . Among this type of alterations we can highlight intellectual functional diversity, cerebral palsy or evolutionary dyspraxia, in addition to autism.

CAAS are also useful for acquired disorders. Some of them are associated with degenerative processes of genetic origin, such as Parkinson’s disease, sclerosis (both multiple and amyotrophic lateral) and dementias, while others are due to environmental factors; in this sense aphasias caused by head injuries are relevant.