Fifth graders at Robinson Elementary School in Hazard, KY love having Kelby Johnson in their group for class projects. He is smart, funny, easy to work with, pays attention and gets things done. Best of all, he has a kind heart.

Kelby’s cousin Donna Smith, a sixth grader at the school, looks forward to when he stops by her locker to say hello, sometimes with a gentle hug. Such moments have a way of taking her back to when they were small. Kelby would pull Donna or her brother Kain by the hand when he wanted to join them in games or activities. Or he simply walked away when he didn’t feel like playing.

Non-verbal because of his autism, Kelby has always communicated by making gestures, showing pictures, pointing or writing. All are OK for getting simple messages across, but let Kelby share just limited amounts of information. Those who’ve known Kelby all his life or see him every day know he has way more to say.  So, people are super excited that Kelby has a more complete way of letting others hear his voice now that Tobii Dynavox Compass software on an iPad is his main mode of communication.

We met Kelby when he made the local news in his hometown back in the spring when he gave a presentation using Compass at a Special Needs Awareness Evening in a neighboring school district. His budding advocacy means a lot, said his mother, Amanda Johnson. “Now he can tell people what it’s like to live with autism.”

Kelby told a captive audience that he wants to be known as a regular kid who likes hanging out with other kids and is eager to make new friends. Frustration and silence have been lifted from Kelby’s interactions, thanks to the technology, while others have a new appreciation for who he is as a person.

“It’s just been awesome,” Mrs. Johnson said. “Totally awesome.” She delights in the revelation of her son’s lighter and more serious sides now that he has a reliable means of self-expression.

kelby-schoolworkIn the past, Mrs. Johnson said, Kelby expressed important things, like the hurt he felt when peers teased him for being different, by crying. Now he can channel his feelings into words and talk it out. Kelby’s strong receptive language skills have been obvious all along. But now his sense of humor, with a dose of gentle sarcasm now and then, emerges as he speaks through the technology. Unafraid to utter “Duh” at his own—or a loved one’s—honest everyday mistakes, Kelby is also not shy when it comes to letting others know when he is too busy for small talk. His cousin Donna likes the Quickfires feature on Compass because he can voice such things simply without typing every word, a perfect workaround for his motor planning issues. She likes that he listens, too. Once when they were doing homework together, he heard her tell her mom she didn’t know how to answer a science question. Kelby walked over to her and showed her the correct response using his Compass app.

Amanda Terry became Kelby’s classroom aide when he started preschool. She took the job because she wanted to work at the same school her daughter attended. Soon they became a nice extension of Kelby’s family. Amanda Terry knew little about autism spectrum disorders then, but she quickly identified what she has always considered to be the only thing separating Kelby from typical students in his classes.

“In a classroom you couldn’t pick him out, except that he can’t talk,” she said. “That’s really his biggest challenge.”

Mrs. Terry saw early on that Kelby liked language. She also knew his potential to do more with it by how well he matched words with corresponding picture symbols on an app and mastered new vocabulary as easily as his peers. Mrs. Terry wanted to help Kelby fill whatever gaps his inability to speak created. She recalled her enthusiasm when his mom asked her to come over to their house to check out the Tobii Dynavox Compass app she had found online. When Mrs. Johnson asked for her opinion on whether the software would allow her son to branch outward in his development of language, literacy and social communication skills, Mrs. Terry gave two thumbs up. After a free trial period with the software, Kelby’s mom bought him the app and got a second iPad for it.

“When he was first starting,” Mrs. Terry said, “it was very important to keep that separate from his other iPad because he associates that with fun time.” For Kelby fun goes beyond tablet computers. He likes swimming, skating, beach vacations, ATVs and motorcycles. He likes the weights, swings, weighted blankets, exercise balls and other items that ease his sensory challenges.

A modern, digital solution has given 19 year-old Sebastian Jansson, invaluable opportunities for living a more independent life on his way into adulthood – and to be seen as the smart guy that he is. With the Tobii Dynavox PCEye, Sebastian, who has cerebral palsy, can communicate with his surroundings in a way that he could not previously do. The proof is that he is now in his second year studying graphic design at the LBS Creative High School in Nyköping, Sweden.

“Without Tobii devices, Sebastian would be more encapsulated and would have trouble communicating with the outside world. However, perhaps the single most important benefit he has received is that he can now express his own will. The PCEye is his savior,” says Thomas Jansson, Sebastian’s dad.

Since both parents are also Sebastian’s assistants, there is a lot of care and effort placed on ensuring that he lives life to the fullest. Ensuring that he has the best means for communication is, of course, also very important.

Evolving with the equipment

Mr. Jansson sees a pattern in Sebastian’s development, and it is connected with the various Tobii devices he has used over the years. Sebastian received his first communication device at the age of ten when he was in fourth grade.

Sebastian has evolved along with Tobii’s development of new and even better products and solutions over the years. Mr. Jansson says that without the PCEye, Sebastian would have needed someone to constantly interpret for him. He would have been able to go to school, but would not be receiving the same kind of education that he is now getting, where he works with a range of different graphic design software.

“I use my PCEye for my school work, for example in graphic communications and graphic illustration where I draw in Photoshop and use Maya for 3D. For vector graphics, I use Illustrator, which I just started with,” says Sebastian.

When Mr. Jansson sees Sebastian’s positive development curve, he wants others in similar situations to have the same opportunities, with the same type of communication device.

“I am convinced that the sooner you get it, the better the chances are for development. And it is clear that I have sometimes wondered how Sebastian would have evolved if he had access to Tobii devices earlier in life,” Mr. Jansson explains.

With the PCEye, Sebastian can control his computer with nearly the same abilities as anyone else who uses a mouse and fingers to type with. PCEye is an eye tracker that makes it possible to control a computer, but instead of using a traditional keyboard and mouse you use your eyes.

The teacher hesitated

“I had some doubts about Sebastian when he started school and was afraid that his disability would limit him. However, now I can say that I actually do not need to change anything in my teachings in order for Sebastian to attend class. It makes me happy that he can be part of the class and more motivated to teach. This new type of technology gives the user ample opportunity to express themselves, regardless of the limitations that their bodies can place on them,” says Sebastian’s teacher, Stefan Lundal.

He notes that there is no difference between what Sebastian is doing in class and what other students are doing.  The only difference is, however, that Sebastian gets one more year in which to complete his studies.

Without the PCEye, Sebastian would have been forced to use pen and paper to attend the courses, which of course would have been impossible because he cannot use his hands. Or as Sebastian puts it:

“I would have had to communicate with the outside world with the help of my assistants who have to interpret for me all the time.”

Control over your computer

“With Tobii devices, Sebastian controls computer technology and gets the opportunity to show his creativity and imagination, something that was impossible before. He does not have to ask anyone and instead does it himself,” says Sebastian’s father.

Sebastian also uses the PCEye in his free time, where he does many of the same things that others do. He likes to go online and play computer games against people halfway around the world.

“I wonder how those he is playing against and defeats would react if they found out that they had just been beaten by a guy who plays with eye control. It’s a pretty cool thought, isn’t it?” says Thomas.

Thanks to the PCEye, Sebastian now dreams about the future, like most other young people. He would like to work at Tobii, preferably with something he has learned in his secondary education. On some occasions, Sebastian has helped Tobii by testing different products. The best thing about his journey, however, is that he now sees that in the near future there may actually be a job for him.

“I would think that I will be working with something in IT in the future,” says Sebastian.

When you meet Juan, you want him for a friend. He’s kind, fun, bright, dependable and resourceful. Simple, silly things like watching cartoons or riding a swing make him smile. Oh, and he’s an excellent writer and loves animals, especially white tigers. That’s why “Tiggy” is his nickname.

What we really like—make that admire—about this 25-year-old gentleman from suburban Chicago is how graciously he deals with all that life has dealt him. It’s easy to understand why Juan holds fast to his freedom as well as his dreams, given the multiple challenges that his autism, cerebral palsy and post-traumatic stress disorder present.  Because of his physical limitations, activities like holding a pencil, cooking, walking long distances or climbing stairs can be problematic. Interacting with others can be unsettling because Juan is primarily non-verbal.

But Juan takes life as it comes and focuses on the good things. There’s the prospect of returning to work at a pet shop when his current round of occupational and physical therapy ends. Juan contributes to the world through his writing. His insightful blog is a steady source of untold encouragement to readers. Then there’s Allie, his gentle canine buddy. The Australian cattle dog/Great Dane mix is also a trained service dog and rarely leaves Juan’s side. Together, they navigate the surroundings when out and about. Allie keeps Juan safe whether he’s walking or in his wheelchair.

“She helps me with lots of things,” Juan says. “She provides deep pressure hugs to calm me down. She licks my hands to stop self-harm behaviors during a meltdown. She helps me stand up from sitting.”


Most precious to Juan is his six-year-old daughter. He calls her Esperanza and they have a great relationship. He is also friendly with her adoptive parents. On their frequent visits, Juan talks with his little girl using the Tobii Dynavox T10 that has been his primary mode of communication for the past two years.

Juan got the tablet communication device after a brief phase with a communication app, casting aside his often fruitless attempts at vocalization, reliance on behaviors, and use of picture symbol cards and sign language for self-expression.  His communication book, a huge binder filled with vocabulary for everyday interactions that he carried everywhere, grew old and cumbersome.

“Using my voice was the worst,” Juan told us during interviews done by emailing through the T10.  “Nobody ever understood me.” Along with mechanical difficulties that CP causes with production of intelligible speech, Juan experiences anxiety around communicating as many people with autism do. Another issue is his aphasia, a complex disorder more often associated with individuals recovering from stroke or traumatic brain injury. It affects parts of the brain that control expressive and receptive language.

“My brain doesn’t think in words,” Juan said. That may seem an unusual statement coming from a writer, but aphasia can make it hard to remember words even when you understand all that is happening around you and know what you want to say. Some people with aphasia are left completely unable to speak, read or write.

Juan works around his speech and language impairment using tools and resources included with the T10, which he operates through a switch-scanning method that gives him access to a large selection of symbol-based vocabulary at once. He can compose messages just by pressing a switch, conserving the amount of physical energy required for communication. When the switch is not with him or fatigue sets in, Juan prefers to use Tobii Dynavox Compass software on his iPad. Either way, he likes that he can express so much so easily.

“A lot of people just think of AAC to communicate, but there is so much more,” he said. “It has schedules and timers and videos and checklists and so many other tools and behavior supports that many of us need.”

Juan grew up with both English and Spanish, but found it challenging to learn the languages because of his disabilities. The T10 plays a part in putting that barrier behind him. “I can use it to help understand a word I may read or that somebody says by typing it and looking at the symbol” for the word, he said, adding that he is always finding something new under the umbrella of practical supports the technology offers.

“These really help me be more independent by keeping me on track and helping make choices and breaking things down into easy steps.” Juan said. He also likes the step-by-step videos and practice conversations included with the device, as well as its email and texting capabilities, calendar and calculator.

Though he experienced periods of homelessness all his life, Juan never gave up. He has moved consistently in a positive direction as an adult, with supportive people and resources there to light the way. Juan got involved with a housing program and is now transitioning to his own apartment with help from a part-time caregiver and, of course, Allie. Living independently is perhaps more appealing than ever now that he can speak with those he meets.

Communication was more frustrating than functional for Juan when he first consulted with speech-language pathologist Claire Francin, M.S., CCC-SLP at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago on possible solutions.  She fondly recalled Juan’s good nature and open-mindedness.

“He’s pretty incredible,” she said. “I think he just wanted to figure out what would be the best fit for him.” The app Juan tried fell short when it came to communicating with partners without literacy, she said. Ideas for consolidating his communication book to make it more portable did not pan out. While the T10 doesn’t erase every annoyance—Juan still gets flustered when others expect him to type faster, for instance—it brings empowering change to his life.

“You could tell that he was excited to be able to step out of his routine, and maybe a little bit out of his comfort zone because he has the confidence to be able to communicate,” Ms. Francin said.

Juan likes that the device’s Tobii Dynavox Compass language software is flexible and reliable. He used its topic-based Master pageset as a foundation for linking to specific language content. Juan is changing things up a bit and using Tobii Dynavox Core First, a pageset allowing the systematic addition of new language content color-coded by parts of speech without changing the location of older content. Selecting vocabulary without his switch may also be easier, because the targets are bigger. Juan is keeping the Master pages on his iPad and Core First on the T10 so he can have the best of both while making the transition.

Lately Juan is focusing on ordinary communication opportunities—while shopping, meeting neighbors or carrying out other day-to-day activities—to increase his fluency with the technology. Patience is all he asks from others.

“Some people think that because I’m typing (something), it’s OK to read it if I’m taking too long or they don’t understand,” he said. “But I don’t get to read little bubbles over your head like a comic book telling me what you say. If I have to learn to understand you, you can work on understanding me.” Even Allie seems to get that Juan’s device use really matters.  “She knows when I say ‘good girl’ it’s to her,” he said.

Juan takes the conversation back to his favorite topic—his daughter—when asked what he is looking forward to most as better communication expands the circle of his life.

“To watching my baby girl grow up,” he says. “I can’t wait to see what kind of difference she makes in the world.”

Gio&SLP-Amy4Gio Coletta thrives in all he does, especially when people are around. You’ll often catch the extroverted six-year-old from Harbor Creek, PA waving to others and shaking their hands, even at the college bookstore where his parents work.

“He loves attention,” said his mom Haley. “He likes to be in the mix.” At the same time, Gio is an attentive listener who fully absorbs just about everything he hears. Primarily non-verbal because of his autism, Gio sometimes becomes frustrated that he can’t reciprocate in conversation. But lately, that’s been changing in a way that makes Gio and those around him very happy.

Now, when Gio wants to say something, all he has to do is bring up the Tobii Dynavox Compass software he keeps on an iPad that he uses just for communication. “It works out wonderfully,” his mom said. Gio uses a separate family iPad to read books, play games and for educational apps. He started using Compass a few months ago and takes it with him everywhere. Others finally have the pleasure of getting to know him better than before.

It means the world to Gio’s mother to know exactly what her son needs and how he feels. “Now he can communicate more functionally and more expressively. The functionality is the biggest difference,” Mrs. Coletta said, recalling that Gio could only go so far using picture symbol cards, signing approximations or a smattering of verbal approximations to convey his thoughts. Compass, meanwhile, is a resource for his overall language development, offering visual and behavioral supports. Gio likes the audio reinforcement the software provides in the form of a young boy’s voice.

“Compass is motivating and meaningful for him,” his mom said. Through his use of the software, Gio is becoming more independent in asking for help and learning the importance of making polite “I…” statements when interacting with others.

One of Gio’s closest companions on the journey is his older brother Max, 9, who was diagnosed with autism when Mrs. Coletta was eight months pregnant with Gio. The brothers have varying degrees of Fragile X syndrome, a genetic condition presenting cognitive challenges and commonly linked to autism in boys. Similarities between Gio and Max fade where their personalities come in. “They’re pretty different in how they get through the day,” Mrs. Coletta said. “What works for one doesn’t always work for the other.” Max, for example, is non-verbal and for now, doing well with low-tech symbols and unaided communication strategies (like pointing) as his language develops. He is perfectly content to be alone while Gio is more outgoing, spontaneous and easily excitable. Their mom appreciates Max’s calming influence on Gio and, especially, the quality time the boys spend together. “We choose to celebrate them every day,” she said. “I want them to be as happy and successful as they can be.”

In the morning, the boys ride the bus to the Elizabeth Lee Black School at the National Barber Institute in Erie, PA, and look for each other as the day goes on though they’re in different classrooms. At home, the learning continues.

“I’ve seen Max teach Gio and Gio teach Max,” Mrs. Coletta said. “Sometimes it’s very direct, sometimes it’s very indirect.” She likes that Max tends to go with the flow, setting a good example for Gio, who is often restless. With equal pride and joy, she tells of when Gio, through simple actions, taught Max how to work their CD player. The boys love music and dancing. Bike riding, playground visits and swimming occupy much of their free time. So does Gio’s favorite activity—gymnastics. The boys take gymnastics classes designed for kids on the spectrum. Gio is always asking when the next class is, turning to Compass to help him pose the question.

Barber Institute speech-language pathologist Amy Moczulski, M.A. CCC-SLP recommended Compass because Gio needed a primary functional communication system. She soon found that it also motivated Gio to engage with his peers and initiate interaction more often. “I had never heard him say what he liked before.”

Gio uses Compass to express himself as situations call for, whether telling classmates it’s their turn while playing a game or perhaps fishing for a compliment—as when he showed off his new shoes. Every time this happens is another chance for Gio’s communication partners to get to know him.

“He really has a desire to share experiences,” Mrs. Moczulski said.

 By Patti Murphy

Like most 16-year-olds, Kreed is an independent thinker. He enjoys having choices, and the freedom to express his likes and dislikes, whether the subject is food, entertainment, or how he wants to spend the weekend. Until recently, however, he could not communicate those things easily. Primarily non-verbal because of his autism, Kreed has a history of challenging behaviors, including self-injury, grounded in his inability to speak. Behavior and communication were practically equivalent for Kreed while growing up. He often used aggression—making loud utterances, kicking, spitting, or refusing to move—to express thoughts and feelings.

The situation is improving dramatically now that Kreed uses the Tobii Dynavox T10. As the tablet augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) system makes it easier for him to communicate, Kreed’s distinctive voice is taking shape. His language abilities are beginning to flourish as he learns that communication is about talking and listening. He is growing as a person.

We all know an individual with autism who has a special interest, fascination, or “enthusiasm.”  I know a 6-year-old who loves all things dinosaur, a 5-year-old who likes strings, and an 8-year-old who is into lights.  Speaking youngsters with Autism often talk about their special interest topic, and savvy communication partners can use this interest as a way to engage and expand communication.

Individuals with Autism who use augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) often have a special interest area as well.  Why not use their interest area as a way to engage and expand communication through their AAC system?  We can do this in several ways:

Categories (My Words, Vocab Lists):  Be sure that in addition to the usual word categories present in the AAC system (animals, foods, body parts, places) that there is a category for the special interest (dinosaurs, lights, strings).  Within the category you can have word lists that allow the AAC user to label, request, and comment about members of the category, be it dinosaurs, lights, or whatever.

Pictures (My Photos, Picture Albums):  We use photos of people, events and places in AAC systems to allow the AAC user to recall and tell about important things.  Photographs of special interest items can also be included in photo album pages.  Each photo is paired with appropriate words, phrases and sentences to allow the AAC user to tell about his interest in detail.    Pictures of the AAC user playing with or arranging his items can be accompanied by messages that describe the items, tell about the event pictured, and even invite the communication partner to engage further.

Scripts:  Some AAC users benefit from the structure of a pre-planned script on their AAC system that includes several things to say about a particular topic.  A special interest is a perfect script topic, and the AAC user can use the script to engage with peers enthusiastically and successfully.  The script might be pre-programmed messages to activate and speak on the AAC device, or it might be picture-supported messages on a paper communication board that the user can point to.  The script would include an introduction, several message turns, and a closing.  The AAC user’s part of the script might be something like this:

  • Did you know that I love dinosaurs?
  • My favorite is the Triceratops.
  • Triceratops was a plant-eater.
  • We can’t see them anymore because they are extinct.
  • Do you like dinosaurs?
  • Maybe we can play with my dinosaur toys someday.
  • See you later.

We all prefer to talk about things that we care about.  Keeping in mind that this is true for our AAC users also can help us be better communication partners.

I was in a workshop recently when I heard someone say, “He can’t learn to use his AAC device for anything but requesting because he has autism.”

Could that be true?

I don’t think so.

I think we often introduce AAC equipment and strategies in activities that involve requesting.  Why?  Because it is motivating and often instantly successful.   Because it works!  We then often expand opportunities for requesting to additional activities throughout the day, so the AAC user can request snack foods, center time activities, music, break time, and even which classmate to sit with.   Many opportunities, but only opportunities for requesting.  Is that all there is?

We know that the ability to use AAC to request may not automatically transfer to other functions of language without teaching.  That is what the research suggests.  So what that means for us is that we need to introduce AAC use for other functions of language and then use our communication partner strategies to teach it!

How do we do it?

We can model and teach AAC use for commenting, protesting, and sharing information in virtually any setting.

I can show commenting at its most simple by saying and touching the AAC device to indicate “this is good” or “this stinks,” while we are having a snack.   “This is funny,” while reading a book or “This makes me mad,” when having difficulty with something.

I can show protesting by modeling the use of the AAC device to say, “I don’t want to,” or “No” after presenting items or activities that I know the AAC user does not like.  “Stop it,” when a classmate is being a bother.  I can use sabotage to create situations that lend themselves to protest and then assist the AAC user to do so with his or her device.

I can teach information sharing by using photographs of the AAC user engaged in fun activities or with his or her family members, and messages that tell about the people and events depicted.  “This is my dog.”  “This is me at Christmas with my presents.”  “Look at me on a bike!”

Have a look at the AAC users that you support.  Are they using their AAC device for a variety of language purposes?

When I ask people to describe a particular student with autism that may be on their caseload or in their classroom, I often hear about the student’s challenges. I might hear about the fact that the student isn’t motivated to learn or that they have significant behavior challenges.  While I recognize (and respect) that these challenges are very real, I long to hear about the student’s amazing sense of direction or about how they are really good at following the steps in a sequence.  Those who work in the school setting are faced with juggling students with diverse needs and abilities.  There never seems to be enough time or support to get things done.  It can be very easy to slip into the swamp of negativity.

I started a new job several years ago.  It was a completely new role for me and required me to move across the county to a new city where I didn’t know a single person.  I can definitely say that I was outside of my comfort zone.  I remember sitting at a coffee shop talking on the phone with the phone company trying to get my internet set up (You can’t start a new job without internet!!).  The stress must have been written all over my face.  I’m sure the woman sitting next to me overheard most of the conversation.  When she walked by to leave, she placed a Post-it note on my table.  It simply read, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.  This too shall pass.”  To quote Oprah, I had an “aha moment.”  From that moment on, I decided not to worry about all of the potential challenges I might face with the new job, I decided to focus on the positive and to use my strengths to get me through the challenges.  I jumped in and did what needed to be done and didn’t allow myself to become overwhelmed by the things that didn’t really matter.  I am happy to report that the job experience was one of the best I’ve ever had and I learned to be a positive thinker.

By applying these same strategies when working with students on the ASD spectrum, we can begin to focus on their strengths instead of their challenges.  While skills and abilities vary from student to student, it is important to think about the fact that many students with autism understand concrete concepts, rules and sequences very well.  They also often think in a visual way and are able to recall visual images and memories easily.   In addition, they can typically understand context specific language (language that can be directly related to an experience) and be extremely focused during pleasurable tasks.  These students can also understand better when he sees something vs. hear it (Thank goodness for visual supports!).

If you really think about it, it is the strengths of our students that can lead us to a solution to the challenge.  For example, if the student is not motivated to participate in social interaction with others (challenge), but is really good with following a routine (strength) then we can potentially address the challenge by making the social interaction with others a part of the routine (solution).

You’ve probably heard the saying “it takes way more facial muscles to frown than it does to smile.”  Well I believe that it takes way more energy to “admire the problem” than to think positively and come up with solutions.  Try to follow every challenge statement with a strength statement.   By focusing on the strengths of the students we are promoting a positive communication and learning environment.  And don’t forget to repeatedly tell your students about their strengths (ex., “Wow, Jill.  You are really good at following directions!”).

For more information about the strengths and solutions for students with autism, watch the Behavioral Supports for Individuals with Autism video  on the DynaVox Implementation Toolkit.  This video will highlight some of the strengths and characteristics often demonstrated by students with autism.

Download FREE visual supports (and thousands of other communication/learning boards) at

The long-awaited DSM-V has been released, and with it “refreshed” diagnostic criteria for Autism.  Individuals with autism, families, professionals, and other stakeholders are weighing in with accolades, concerns and criticism.  Respected organizations like Autism Speaks Science are soliciting feedback from those affected by the changes and will be analyzing the data moving forward.  If you are interested in participating in the Autism Speaks survey, please click here.  I am interested in learning the results of their analysis once the dust has settled.

What I see when I compare the DSM-IV and DSM-V criteria is a streamlining and meshing of what used to be the separate social interaction and communication strands.  As a speech-language pathologist this makes sense to me, as communication, in one form or another, is the linchpin of our social interaction as human beings.  Communication/social interaction impairments have long been integral to a diagnosis of autism, just as interventions addressing communication/social interaction are keys to the treatment of individuals with autism spectrum disorders.

So how does AAC fit in with all of this?  The same way it always has.  AAC is a best-practice intervention for any individual who is unable to meet communication/social interaction needs with speech alone.  AAC intervention may be long or short term.  It may be needed all day long in every activity and situation or it may be needed in specific settings or situations only.  It may be no-tech, low-tech, or high-tech in nature.  The American Speech Language Hearing Association reminds us that AAC should be thought of as a system comprised of four components: symbols, aids, strategies, and techniques. (ASHA, 2004).

There is nothing inherently communicative or socially interactive about symbols and aids alone.  The key to functional, meaningful, social communication is the combination of symbols and aids with the strategies and techniques that are employed to teach and sustain their use in real life interactions with real life important others.  We should be using AAC (all four parts) to support communication for building social-emotional reciprocity and fulfilling relationships for individuals with autism.  That has not changed with the DSM-V!


American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. (2004). Roles and responsibilities of speech-language pathologists with respect to augmentative and alternative communication: technical report [Technical Report]. Available from

Students with autism can benefit from an educational environment that is set up to assist them with the types of challenges they face. There are a few minor changes you can implement to make your classroom an optimum learning environment for a student with autism. Some of these changes consist of furniture arrangement and lighting, creating visual schedules and guides, and designating a quiet area. By making these few minor changes, the school day will be more enjoyable for both you and your students.

Because open spaces can be intimidating to students with autism, one of the most important things you can do in your classroom is clearly mark where different sections of the classroom begin and end. You can use furniture, such as bookcases, desks, and rugs, to create clear physical and visual boundaries. In addition, you may want to use blackout curtains on the windows so students are not distracted by the external environment. Classroom light filters are also great to create a relaxing atmosphere for learning and to help reduce eyestrain and to diffuse the harsh glare of fluorescent lighting.

Visual schedules and guides are very beneficial for students with autism. They can help to facilitate communication and therefore minimize behavioral issues. They can also help to provide predictability. When students with autism are able to better understand and anticipate what is going to happen next, it helps them to adapt more easily to their schedule and environment. Create a large, visual classroom schedule that students can refer to and make sure to include specific times and the activities that accompany each time slot.

A quiet area should be designated in a corner of your classroom. The quiet area will help to calm your student down if they begin to feel overwhelmed or anxious and this can help to avoid classroom meltdowns. The area should be free of visual distractions and excessive noise. Use a soft chair, like a beanbag chair, and provide headphones so your student can relax.

By taking into consideration the aforementioned changes, you will be creating an excellent learning environment for your students with autism. This type of learning environment will help your students succeed and stay on track. Remember, not every student is the same so feel free to tweak these changes to meet your students’ needs.

McCormick, Maggie. How to Design an Autistic Classroom. Ehow. Retrieved March 23, 2012, from:

Renata, Rebeca. How to Set Up a Classroom for Autistic Students. Ehow. Retrieved March 23, 2012, from: