Augmentative and Alternative (AAC) Terms and Descriptions

Written by Jessica Conrad on .

This guide is organized by considerations you would likely need to include in your narratives and reports around Augmentative and Alternative Communication. This list is not complete and there may be synonyms or other terms more familiar to families and communities you may want to use. For some students, it may be appropriate to list the exact brand or language system being used.

If you have any questions or suggestions about this list of common AAC terms and their meanings, please contact Jessica Conrad. Indiana PreK-12 public school staff members can request no-cost consultation, loans, and training these tools and techniques at any time. Please reach out to a PATINS Specialist for more information.


Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC): are the symbols, aides, techniques, and strategies that make up how someone communicates. AAC is not a “thing” or a single tool, it is an ecosystem of techniques and tools that often changes over time and between environments, depending on the user’s needs and communication partners. 
  1. Language Representations
    1. Alphabet: all students need access to the full alphabet, there no exceptions
      1. Alternative pencil: anything that provides a student with access to all letters of an alphabet
    2. Multiple Meaning Messages or Semantic Compaction: symbols that have more than one meaning.
    3. Single-Meaning Message: have one symbol represents one meaning
  2. Symbols are something that represents something else. This includes picture icons, photos, speech, signs, sign languages (like ASL), printed text, braille, object miniatures or parts of an object, etc. 
    1. Manually Coded English: when someone uses both English and some gestures or signs to add some visual support to what is being said. This is not a sign language, although it may borrow some signs from a sign language like ASL.
    2. Tactile symbols: something that can be felt that represents something. Example: a handle of a toilet to represent the bathroom
    3. Dynamic Display: symbols presented will change based on user actions, likely infinite messages could be incorporated
    4. Static Display: a finite number of messages, all messages stay where they are regardless of user's interaction
    5. Hybrid Display: incorporating both dynamic and static displays
  3. Other Language Features:
    1. Core words: the most common words of a language. In English, this is estimated to be about 200-400 words
    2. Fringe words: the words that are not core words
    3. Visual Scene Display: a digitized photo or picture of a scene that the user touches to communicate programmed messages. May also be a Video Scene Display with the same features but a video instead of a picture.
  4. Vision Features: ways that visual symbols are made more easily seen by the users. Ex: zooming, highlighting, high contrast.
    1. High Contrast: have a significant difference between the light and dark parts of an image making it easier for some people to see
  5. Voice/Sound Generation: something that makes a sound to communicate. Sound Generating Devices (SGDs) often use voice recordings or synthesized speech, known as the “computer voice,” that artificially creates human speech.
  6. Access Features:
    1. Direct Select: When a user points with part of their body with or without a tool. Below are tools that help with direct selection.
      1. Eye Gaze: tracking the user’s eye movement which serves as a point. In a computer system, a camera is looking at the light reflected in the user’s retina to know what the eyes are looking at.
      2. Head Pointing: tracking the user’s head movement. In a computer system, a camera is watching the position of the face (through facial recognition or a reflective sticker) to know where the head is pointing
      3. Keyguard: material that lays on a screen or image to help the user make an accurate selection. Keyguard materials, colors, shapes, thickness, and other features vary depending on user needs, tools, and activities. May also be called a Touchguide or Keyguide depending on the features.
    2. Indirect Selection: When a user makes a selection from a set of choices with or without a tool.
      1. Partner Assisted Scanning (PAS): a partner speaks and/or shows a set of symbols or choices to the user and waits for a response to indicate, at least, “yes, that’s the one I want.” The user may also have a “no, move on to the next choice” response but it is not necessary to use this technique.
      2. Switch: a device that activates or deactivates an electric signal. Switches in assistive technology have a variety of sizes, features, ways of activating and uses. Switches are connected to other things, like communication devices, to operate them.
  7. Portability and positioning
    1. Mount: an object that helps support other objects and tools. Example: a piece of pipe connected to a wheelchair or standing on a floor to support a laptop.

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