Helping your child to communicate

Children and young people who find it difficult to use or develop speech must be given access to a way of communicating with others. The systems are called Alternative Augmentative Communication, which is often shortened to AAC.

  • Alternative – communicate in a different way than the “norm”
  • Augmentative – communicate in a way that boosts what you’ve got naturally as some people’s speech is not always understood by others
  • Communication - the process you use to exchange information, ideas, needs and desires

Using AAC serves the same function and purpose as speech and therefore should support the person to make requests, comment on the environment and share information with others (e.g. label objects), answer questions or have a conversation. All of these systems give the person a voice, a way of controlling their environment and a way of getting their needs and wants met.

There is no one system that is better than the rest, it is about finding the one that uses your child's strengths and what they can do to support what they currently can’t. To ensure that the right decision is made, and make sure your child is set up to succeed, it’s really important that you seek guidance from a professional before trying any AAC system with your child.

Different types of AAC


Symbols represent a word or idea you might want to say in a picture format. There are different symbol systems in use around the UK but it is important that you choose the one you think clearly represents the item or activity. You can also use photos or objects to convey a meaning.

The symbols or photos can be presented in different ways to support communication with others from having a few important symbols on a key chain, a communication board with a range of symbols on a page to a communication book where the vocabulary is organised in categories such as ‘food’, ‘familiar people’ etc. Typically the symbol or photo would have a word underneath, the person using it would point to the symbol or photo and the person ‘listening’ would read back what they are pointing to.

Picture Exchange Communication System

Often called PECS it teaches children to  spontaneously communicate by exchanging or giving symbols to someone else. The person will have their own binder in which they have symbols or photos to represent all  the items or activities that they really enjoy or are motivated to request and comment on. To find out more go to:


Signing is a way of using hand movements and shapes to communicate a meaning. The person must learn to make the signs and one of the best ways of someone learning how to do something is by seeing others using it around them all the time. That means that to make communication effective everyone interacting with that person must learn what the signs mean and learn to make them themselves.

There are different systems used across the UK such as Makaton, Signalong and signed English. British Sign Language is a language used by deaf people therefore requires specialist support from native or fluent users of British Sign Language.

We can also use these visual systems i.e. symbols and signing to help the person understand what we are saying to them or help them understand their environment (such as where the kitchen is or where items are stored in cupboards)

Voice Output Communication Aid (VOCA)

VOCA includes a wide range of devices that produce a spoken word to help the person communicate. They can range from ones that say a single message to a touch screen that allows you to build sentences. Although these devices may appear more beneficial because they actually speak it is very important that the needs and skills of the person that will be using are fully considered to make sure it will be functional for them.

Useful links