Alternative Communication System: An Overview

One of our basic activities in life is the ability to communicate our wants and needs. Communication is a two-way street between the sender and the receiver – and they are both necessary people in order for the communication to work. In order for communication to be effective, however, the sender and the receiver need to understand what the message is that is being communicated, and how it is being communicated.



All children can communicate in one way or another, but children who have been diagnosed on the autistic spectrum may not use spoken or written language. These are not the only ways to get a message across, there are a variety of other methods you can use as an alternative communication system for children with visual or other disabilities. These methods include manual signs, systems using pictures, systems using sounds, and technological devices – or a combination of all of these things.

If you are thinking, well my child has autism, what sort of communication methods are available? Here are some ideas:

  • Expressive communication is the term used to describe the way someone conveys their thoughts and can include crying, pointing or speaking
  • Receptive communication refers to the way in which someone understands a sender’s communication and can include reading and listening
  • Non-symbolic communication refers to communication which does not use symbols such as words or sign, and so therefore does not have a shared meaning for others
  • Symbolic communication therefore refers to communication which involves a shared message passing between the sender and the receiver.
  • Sign language is quite a common method that is used and refers to senders making signs with their fingers and hands to represent words and ideas
  • Symbol systems use objects, pictures or other tactile symbols as a communication method where your child can point to a symbol in order to be able to communicate
  • Augmentative communication refers to the use of an alternative method to help the child to communicate and there are a wide range of apps and devices available to help your child to do

Knowing about different communication methods like this can better help you to understand the ways you can help your child communicate.  When your child is finding it difficult to communicate, they may need to use alternative methods to communicate their needs and thoughts. They should be given access to a variety of methods to express their thoughts and to enable them to understand what others are communicating to them. Augmentative and alternative communication can help to support their efforts to communicate.

Augmentative and alternative communication methods can be aided or unaided, using devices or objects or a mix of both. Unaided methods of communication include things such as facial expressions, gestures, sign language, speech and vocalisations.  Examples of aided methods of communications include using an actual object to convey meaning (such as your child handing you a cup to let you know that they are thirsty), pointing to symbols or pictures on a communication board or in a book, or activating a device (such as pressing a switch on a recorded speech device).

It is important for an autistic child to have access to both aided and unaided methods of communication as although using aided communication can be really helpful, they may not always be available to your child in every situation where they need to communicate.


AAC Devices

There are many devices out there that can aid your child with communication, from the simple to the sophisticated and they are constantly evolving. Every autistic child is different and so their needs are different as well – and therefore it is important to find the AAC system that works the best for them.

If you child is receiving specialist help then their team will be able to work with them to help you decide what device might be the best thing for them. It is important for professionals who are familiar with different types of communication issues to be involved in this process as they will have specialist knowledge of how your child uses their vision and other senses to obtain information form the world around them.

Some of the devices that are available to be used by children with autism include:

  • Communication Board. This can be made out of cardboard, wood or another solid surface and typically include a grid with two or more symbols on. The symbols are normally objects that are easy to recognise or they can be photographs or drawings, alphabet symbols or even words. The benefits of using a communication board are that the child can easily express themselves by pointing to the symbol, picture, letters or words which convey what they want to share.


  • Communication Books. In a similar way to a communication board, a communication book contains symbols that your child can point to and which will help them to convey their message. Sometimes these books can be arranged with the first page containing the categories such as food, people and emotions. Your child can point to a broad category on this page, and then whoever they are communicating with can turn to the page which offers them more choice within that category.


  • Recorded Speech Devices. With a recorded speech device someone (yourself, a sibling or a teacher) records messages which your child can use. They can activate the messages when they need to with the touch of a button. There are very complex AAC systems available which enable them to communicate a wide range of information.
  • You child can type a message on a keyboard which then reads the message out loud – the keyboard could contain letters, words or pictures.

It is important to remember that every child needs a variety of methods available to them to be able to express themselves, and augmentative communication apps are one of these methods. Providing them with an array of communication options will help them grow and develop and be able to fully participate in daily life.