Roadblock: Different AAC systems in one environment

Teams often feel blocked when different Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) systems are being used in the environment. Teams need to get to know the systems. They need experience and flexibility to quickly switch between systems. Often, AAC users are more flexible than the environment!

In some environments, there may be more than one Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) user. Every AAC user is different and will have different AAC needs. They may use different AAC systems.

People supporting those AAC users can feel stuck. How can we integrate different systems of AAC into the daily routine? How can we swap from one system to another? Wouldn’t it be easier if everyone used the same AAC system?

One size does not fit all

It is very important to realize that no one size or type of AAC fits all. Every individual needs an AAC system based on their communication and access needs. We should be selecting a balanced AAC system based on core words, fringe vocabulary and an alphabet. We should be starting with a grid size that the AAC user can see and touch. And we need to personalize each AAC system for the individual. When we follow these beginning steps, we may find that each AAC user we support may need a different AAC system. While supporting different AAC systems in the same environment may not be the easiest choice, it is definitely the best choice when AAC users have significantly different needs. AAC systems must meet the needs of their AAC users.

Here is an example of a typical classroom. One student may have a significant physical impairment and he needs to access his AAC system using eye gaze. Another student may use a communication book. Other students may have an AAC system set up on their iPad, but each student has a different grid size depending on their vision and fine motor skills. Each student has a different system. The picture or symbol supports may even be different.

Know all the AAC systems

The best thing teams can do is to take the time to get familiar with the systems being used. This may involve “playing” with the vocabulary to become more comfortable and confident about where words are located. Or the team can determine a set of words to model for a particular activity. See the AssistiveWare Core Word Classroom core word activity planners for helpful suggestions for many common school and home activities. Create “cheat sheets” or modeling guides for where the words are on each system. These can be used for practice and for reference during the activity. In time, cheat sheets will no longer be needed, because through practice, the team will have learned the location of many words.

It can also be helpful to have light tech versions of the AAC systems (or at least the home page and some other key pages). Communication partners can use these to practice modeling key words. You can find core word boards for the 7x11 Crescendo vocabulary in AssitiveWare's Core Word Classroom.

The better we know the systems, the more we can model words and sentences on any system. Modeling language across different AAC systems will take time. At first it may be slow, as we get to know the systems. But the more we do, the easier it will become.

Support all members of the team to get to know the AAC system. Have regular meetings to discuss successes and difficulties. Have practice sessions to take time “playing” with the system - or just dedicate 5-10 minutes of each staff meeting to finding words on one of the AAC systems being used in the classroom, or conversing using the system(s).

While supporting different AAC systems in the same environment may not be the easiest choice, it is definitely the best choice when AAC users have significantly different needs. AAC systems must meet the needs of their AAC users.

Generic AAC system

Often it can sometimes help to have a generic AAC system. This AAC system can be used across all AAC users to model language during activities. The system may be a high-tech system, perhaps that is projected onto a white board. The system may be printed variations of the AAC system; printed and attached to desk and table tops, or made into a large poster. You can use the A4/Letter size Crescendo core word boards available on the Assistiveware Core Word Classroom, or the A0 poster sized boards (through Zazzle or by printing out the A0 PDF).

Whichever generic AAC system you choose, it should be balanced, based on core words, perhaps with some access to fringe and the alphabet. AAC systems like this are valuable, especially if individuals have not yet got their own personal AAC system yet. They can be used to model during group sessions. However a generic AAC system should not replace all other AAC in the classroom. Direct modeling should also be done on the individual AAC system as often as possible.

A generic AAC system can be used in any environment - for example at school, at home or in community-based locations.


We expect literacy learners to develop print awareness, and the flexibility to recognize letters even when they are in different fonts and different sizes. Similarly, we should encourage AAC users and their support team to be flexible in recognizing symbols. This includes the ability for them to recognize different words and symbols, even though they may look slightly different. Often AAC users are already visual learners, so learning different symbols can be easy for them. This flexibility makes it easier for them to make fast-switches between different AAC systems if they need to.

Everyone can use it!

Everyone in the environment can use the AAC systems. Peers or siblings can be great supporters of different AAC systems. Get them on board finding words across the systems. Even let the AAC users have access to another peer’s AAC system or to the generic AAC. We often find that AAC users can learn to communicate a message in a variety of ways - sometimes that includes borrowing their friend’s AAC to say something!

Overcome the Roadblock

Get to know the different AAC systems! Be flexible! And most importantly, give it a try! There is so much to be achieved when we give a voice to AAC users!

Take the test: Check the Learn AAC Guide to see where you are in establishing AAC for an AAC user. This may help you overcome any roadblocks stopping you from success!