Top Tips for SLPs New to AAC: Advice from 18 AAC SLPs

I have a special treat for everyone today! I asked AAC SLP’s and AAC SLP’s-to-be their top tips for other SLP’s starting to use AAC. I can’t wait to share with you their #1 tips so you can start implementing their advice TODAY. I was so thrilled with the responses I received, and I really think these top tips can take your therapy to the next level. So, get ready to be inspired and for your AAC to-do list to grow as you read through these top tips from speech-language pathologists as they learned how to do AAC!

Get comfortable with the system outside the therapy room

Karen Fahey of @speechievibes responded with the following advice:

Take the time outside of therapy to play around and get to know whatever system you will be using. Try making a system that would work for your communicative needs! It’s fun, helps you become more comfortable navigating the program, and increases your empathy for and understanding of the experience of the user.

I love Karen’s advice! I think experimenting and learning the device without a client around is a GREAT way to get started. I remember in graduate school taking the device in the student lounge area and just studying it. I would also use software (such as the NuVoice software) on my computer to learn the systems on my computer, when I didn’t have access to the actual device.

Jessy Bornsheuer, or @talkaactome on IG, shared practical advice for us, as well!

My best advice is to jump in and just try it. I’ve learned so much of my AAC skill set by just doing. Sometimes things work great and sometimes they don’t. It’s important to not give up and keep trying… and to remember things take time. We don’t learn how to speak overnight and learning an AAC system will take time. 

Jessy’s correct- it does take time! I didn’t learn any system quickly, and I’m still far from done learning all of the systems my students and clients use. But, I love using the system outside of therapy and even trying it out at home or in public! It’s a great way to practice. I have also had parents tell me the same thing.

Sarah Weber from @sarahweberspeech also gave me her advice about learning AAC:

My number one tip for a therapist just getting to learn AAC is to go ahead and play with the system. Get yourself a low-tech copy to look through or take some time with the individual's device and really sit down with it and just let yourself explore. I feel like this helps take away some of the mystery surrounding AAC and really helps therapists become comfortable much more quickly.

To expand on this idea, I recommend also writing "maps" for you to refer to during the day or during the session. Have the core vocabulary you're going to target "mapped" out ahead of time, so when it's time for the therapy session, you have a "cheat sheet," so to speak! NuVoice software allows you to do this, for example, and it's completely free! AAC Language Lab also has maps available and prepared for activities and targets. 

It’s okay to mess up- actually, it may be in your best interest

Brooke Dibley at @simplyspeakingslt is an SLP in New Zealand (fun fact)! She has some great advice from working with kiddos with complex communication needs:

My number one tip would probably be it’s okay if you mess up. And by mess up I mean you can’t quite find what you’re trying to say on a board or it takes you a while with whatever AAC you’re using. I’d say it’s okay to mess up in front of teachers, parents, and the child you’re using AAC with because it shows them you’re not some superior AAC user, you’re just like them and if you can use it they can use it. It’s equalizing because they often think “the speech therapist uses the AAC, but it’s too much for me” and they get overwhelmed. Also, when you do have a moment to take a while to find what you want to say, say out loud “ugh, I want to say Go, and I can’t find it, but I know Go is a verb and it’s going to be green so I’m going to look at the green ones” and talking through our thinking helps the learner and the user of the AAC system see our thinking and it also shows the people (e.g., teacher, parent) using the device or low-tech AAC system how they can model their thinking and what goes through your head and how they can think systematically through finding things.

Brooke’s advice is so unique because I rarely think about talking through my hunt for words on a device out loud! My first feeling when I can’t find a word on an AAC system is embarrassment, and Brooke’s advice is to take that feeling in stride and use it to your advantage by relating to the person using the device and the people modeling on the device. I will definitely be taking Brooke’s advice in my therapy practice.

Kristin Weingart from @communicationcottage gave advice similar to Brooke’s! Take a look:

A number one tip would be not to be afraid if you take a bit of time trying to find a word or if you incorrectly say something on the device. It’s how our students learn how to repair communication breakdowns and gives freedom to both you and the student to explore the device but more importantly language.

Okay- I really have to step up my game with some self-acceptance of not having all of the devices I work with memorized! Thanks Kristin for the tip! Kristin also has a great website and creates a monthly subscription service of CommuniCrates. The kits include tools to support littles’ language and literacy development. Take a look at her website!

Mary Katherine Dally, the SLP and ATP behind @aacforall, gave her advice to those learning AAC for the first time:

Just use it and learn you will be wrong. Also, high-tech is not always best. AAC is trial and error… you’re going to come up with the wrong ideas and answers to find the best systems for your clients.

Mary Katherine does amazing work with low-tech AAC for individuals across the lifespan. She works with individuals ranging in physical abilities, and often comes up with the most creative solutions for people with complex communication needs. I highly recommend checking out her IG for all things AAC, including AAC earrings sold in her Etsy store!

It’s good to ask questions

Susan Todd from @aactualtalkslp is currently pursuing her PhD and is also an AAC SLP! I love her IG for current research on AAC and tips to implement AAC with children with complex communication needs. Her advice really rang true for me (a fellow research geek!):

Ask questions. Ask questions of other SLPs who have more experience. Ask questions of device representatives. Don’t be shy. There is no stupid question, and everyone wants to help!

I’m a fellow question-asker, for sure! I was always the one in school with her hand raised, ready to pounce on the moment I could ask a question regarding my professor’s experience or advice. I’m still always asking questions to my device rep, and over time my questions have changed! That’s okay, because there’s ALWAYS more to learn!

Use your resources

Alma Partida from @aacforyouandme gave some advice I love to shout from the rooftops as well!

I would say reaching out to companies to get free AAC apps or finding out which ones are free and playing around with them! Exposure to new systems and playing around with them is [the] best way to learn AAC!

I LOVE FREE AAC APPS. I have gotten all of my AAC apps for free, and I encourage you to go get your free apps if you are a CCC-SLP!

Emily Byrd (@emilybspeech) is an AAC SLP working in private practice and the school system! She gave the following advice:

I think when I was first starting the biggest thing that helped was going to the trainings that the AAC device companies offered. I learned a lot in the beginning from going to those!

I’m with you, Emily. Trainings are so fun and so informative! I have met some amazing speakers, from Gail Van Tatenhove (PRC) to Bruce Baker (Minspeak), and love getting some CEU’s in the process. It’s a win-win!

Hilary Spannagel is a private practice owner and AAC SLP working in California. Follow her account @express_yourself_therapy:

LAMP training- that changed almost all of how I work with AAC. Education is the biggest [thing] for me. And, having a mentor.

LAMP training is transformative- I completely agree with Hilary! Language Acquisition through Motor Planning trainings can be found at The Center for AAC and Autism. I’m also a huge proponent of having a mentor for AAC. It has helped me so much in my own AAC journey- we all benefit from having someone to bounce ideas off of and help guide us in the right direction.

Venita Litvack from @speechiesideup and host of the Speechie Side Up podcast has an excellent blog post with her 10 top pieces of advice that she shared with me when I asked her what her #1 tip was. Here’s a quote from her blog post click here for blog post:

Follow AAC related blogs. If you are not following the PrAACtical AAC blog, then go check it out as soon as you’re finished reading this! The blog was started by Carole Zangari and the late Robin Parker and has been instrumental in helping professionals get access to evidenced-based information related to AAC. The information is presented in a way that is easy to digest and practical to start implementing right away in therapy. I personally refer to the blog at least once a week, if not more!

I’m also an avid reader of PrAACtical AAC, so bookmark that page now and keep readin’! Also, take a listen to Venita’s podcast and be sure to follow her on the ‘gram for great tips for SLPs!

Maggie Judson from @the.bookish.slp named off some other great resources in her top tip:

Use your resources! Sign up for email alerts from all the places (PrAACtical AAC, device/AAC companies, Language Lab blog, to name a few!) so you'll get daily prompts to read and learn!

I'd like to add that you can also get prompts from me, Kacy Barron, by signing up for them on this website! I love that Maggie mentions email, because it can be so helpful to get alerts to new trainings, blog articles, and events in our area! 

Make AAC therapy fun

Anne Page from @beautifulspeechlife gave some advice that I use daily in my therapy practice.

Make your activities fun, motivating and meaningful to the student. You’ll get more engagement and natural repetition.

Repetition makes perfect…. Errr… did I get that right?! Okay, maybe not always perfect, but repetition is a great way to practice! Also, fun, motivating and meaningful could totally be a T-shirt slogan. If you haven’t already, make sure you follow Anne on instagram and check out her products on Etsy and Teachers Pay Teachers… she has a wealth of information and materials, including her AAC Academy! Here is a link to her website.

Apply your knowledge of language development

Jennifer Wiegert and Corinna Duffitt of Chickadee AAC (@chickadee.aac) gave some powerful advice:

Don’t be afraid to give them “enough” words! Apply your knowledge of language development!

Language development is critical when teaching AAC! I’m glad that Jennifer and Corinna touched on this!

@aac_slps_socal, a speech-language pathologist in Southern California, mentions language therapy in her #1 tip:

AAC is just language therapy! Don’t get distracted by the tool. We are language experts! My CF supervisor told me this and changed my whole perspective.

AAC is language therapy for our kiddos with language impairments. We are teaching language as we are teaching AAC. Thanks, @aac_slps_socal for this tip!

Believe they can, and they will

Megan Stewart, also known as @aacandasdslp on Instagram, recommends the following:

Finding an AAC mentor! Also, ALL kids should be introduced to literacy- both reading & writing- [as well as] taught to LOVE books and reading! No one is "too anything" to learn to read and write!

I agree that having an AAC mentor and introducing literacy to children with complex communication needs are both game changers for our clients and for our own professional development and growth. Follow Megan on IG for great ideas on how to implement AAC + literacy. 

Rachel Madel (@rachelmadelslp), co-host of the Talking with Tech podcast and AAC SLP gave some advice that all of us should hold close to our hearts:

Believe they can, and they will. If we start off with limiting beliefs for a child not being “ready” or able to use a device or a system being “too complicated” then we limit a child’s potential. SLPs need to adopt the bedrock belief that all children are capable of learning and inspire everyone else around them to hold that same belief!

Rachel also recommended an article from USSAAC at https://ussaac.org/inspiring-communication/. Take a read after this article, and make sure you listen to her podcast Talking with Tech and follow her on social media! She has great videos for teaching AAC, as well as AAC-related resources. Click here for Rachel's website.

Tamy Budiardjo at @slp_tamy gave some extremely insightful advice pertaining to her job as an early intervention (EI) speech-language pathologist:

I think the #1 piece I would give an SLP who is just starting AAC is to not assume what you think the parent/family is ready to hear or ready to begin as far as robust AAC. The reason that is my #1 advice is because I think Early Intervention parents have a reputation for being “against” AAC. While this isn’t necessarily false, I think it’s critical for us SLPs to really reflect on what is the least dangerous assumption and how our own fear or apprehensions might unnecessarily delay us from introducing AAC to a family. EI clinicians are often “first responders” as I call it. We’re usually that first line of defense to confirm “hey... yeah something may not be typical.” The parents are often in the grieving process of their child’s development being on a detour, rather than the road they envisioned for their child. When we mention AAC they may think you’re giving up on their verbal development which is of course not our mindset. 

What we know clinically and what the research suggests is that kiddos with CCN are often deprived of social closeness for many reasons: the families are often in crisis mode as they often have to deal with their child’s fragile condition, appointments, meds, etc. Parents of kids with CCN report that parenting is emotionally taxing- as a result these children are often deprived of that social back and forth vocal play with caregivers that we know is so imperative early on in development. Also, kids with CCN may have complex bodies and cannot participate in the way other children can. 

I bring this up because there have been times I assumed “Gosh this family is going through so much trauma and there is no way I can suggest trialing communication devices.” But then I had the ECSE on my team kindly call me out on that and suggest that it is similar to when we assume a family is or isn’t ready to hear that we think their child has red flags for ASD... and that “it’s our job ethically to provide the information. The family can always say no or deny it, but we can’t assume a parent isn’t ready to hear something if they don’t even know something like AAC exists.”

In EI we often think a device will be too much on a parent (it is hard work and grit for the family to do aided language and learning a device I will not discount that!) but recently I had a family tell me that the device made their life much less stressful. Mom’s profound words were “he may always be delayed in speech, but I will not let him be delayed in communication- with the help of the device” and this was a parent I was almost 100% sure would shoot down the idea of touching a device.

My last piece of advice: It's worth the work.

There is so much valuable information and advice in Tamy's response. Short answer is- we may be surprised that parents are more open to AAC than we originally assume. 

Will you implement these top AAC tips?

I hope you consider these top tips as you continue on your AAC journey. Here are the top tips we received from these AAC SLPs:

1. Get comfortable with the AAC system outside the therapy room

2. It's okay to mess up- actually, it may be in your best interest

3. It's good to ask questions

4. Use your resources

5. Make AAC therapy fun

6. Apply your knowledge of language development

7. Believe they can, and they will 

These top tips from these speech-language pathologists emphasize a need for continued learning, for growing and stretching our skill set, and believing in the potential and competence of our clients and their families.

A sincere thank you to all who contributed to this article. I loved creating this blog article for future AAC SLPs, and for others who just want to learn how we became knowledgeable in AAC. 

Please send me an email at [email protected] if you have any questions or comments regarding this post!

Kacy

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