What is communication?

Communication is the essence of human interaction and learning.

The nature of communication is dependent on interaction between two or more individuals and understanding is constructed through that interaction.

Communication is a basic human right and essential to our quality of life as a social species. As human beings, we use communication to: relate to others, socially connect, greet, call attention, share feelings, express an opinion, agree, disagree, explain, share information, question, answer, tease, bargain, negotiate, argue, manipulate, compliment, comment, protest, complain, describe, encourage, instruct, provide feedback, show humor, discuss interests, be polite, make friends, express interest or disinterest, etc.


Communication methods

We all use different forms of communication. Imagine yourself in a noisy bar or pub. Your friend gets up to get a drink at the bar on the other side of the room. While he is there, you decide you would like a drink, too. If it is too noisy to call him, you might wave your hand to get his attention. Once he sees you, you might make a gesture of drinking, or you might hold up your empty glass and point to it. Your friend may nod and then indicate ‘What kind of drink do you want?’ by turning his palms up, raising his hands and using a quizzical facial expression. If you see a poster on the wall that shows your preferred drink, you might point to the poster. Alternatively, you might pick up and show, or point to someone else’s drink, to indicate you would like the same thing. You might point to your friend to indicate the same as whatever he is getting. If you don’t really care, you might use a body gesture and facial expression with your hands moving palms facing up. You have just used a series of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) forms. Whenever something constrains the effectiveness of our spoken language we will use an augmentative form. Therefore the use of AAC is a question of degree rather than difference.

Four factors influence this: our current abilities, the environment, the person we are communicating with, and accepted social mores. When you have laryngitis, you might write on a pad of paper, because you are temporarily unable to use your speech. With someone who is not nearby, you may send a text or an email. If you are speaking with someone who doesn’t speak your language, you may point to a map, pictures or a travel phrase book. You may use a facial expression or gesture to communicate with someone across the room, during a class or service.


Communication aids

Individuals typically use communication aids to solve communicative challenges in a limited number of situations. Some individuals need to rely more heavily on AAC due to physical disabilities, medical complications, or other speech and language disabilities that limit how much speech they are able to produce. These individuals may find themselves more frequently in situations of not being able to use speech effectively, and therefore it is worth investing in more effective AAC methods. For example, some individuals may use an organized system of picture symbols, or text, in a communication book, mobile device, computer, and/or on a dedicated speech-generating device.

These strategies may be used along with vocalizations, facial expressions speech, word approximations, gestures and sign language. They enable individuals to use these forms of AAC more intelligibly and specifically than they could with speech, gestures, and facial expressions alone.


Communication systems and strategies

Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) strategies assist people with complex communication needs to participate more fully in their social roles including interpersonal interaction, learning, education, community activities, employment, volunteerism, care management, etc.

An individual makes use of a collection of AAC strategies to meet his or her individual requirements in a full range of communicative situations. This collection is referred to as the person’s AAC SYSTEM. Individuals typically draw from a range of tools and strategies to fit the particular communicative opportunity. These may include: speech; vocalizations; speech-generating devices; computers; tablets; cell phones; pen and paper; communication books, wallets or boards; sign language; gestures; facial expressions; and eye gaze, among others.

For example, an individual may use a sophisticated speech-generating system in a classroom or work place to participate in discussion, and then use a communication book to chat with friends. She may use her speech and/or word approximations with familiar communication partners in combination with gestures and eye-pointing and facial expressions. In a noisy restaurant or bar, she may use gestures, and speech, along with typing on a smaller, more portable AAC device. In the swimming pool, her system may be printed on waterproof paper or laminated. During a job interview, she may have created answers to common questions and stored them in her communication device, to facilitate her response speed, but also have access to the rest of her vocabulary so she can generate exactly what she wants to say, as needed. At home on her computer, chatting with friends or emailing, she may use a variety of different access methods that function as the keyboard and mouse on her computer.