The Use of Augmentative and Alternative Communication with Students with Multiple Disabilities

Students with multiple disabilities (SMDs) deserve the right to communicate effectively. One way to meet their needs is to implement Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC), an assistive technology that enhances their inclusion into general education classrooms.

Key Takeaway: Students with multiple disabilities (SMDs) deserve the right to communicate effectively. One way to meet their needs is to implement Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC), an assistive technology that enhances their inclusion into general education classrooms. Special educators believe that barriers to AAC are due to a lack of access to AAC, lack of professional development, and lack of support for families. Being aware of these barriers will allow us to develop the best solutions to support communication needs for SMDs. —Michael Ho

Rashed Aldabas (2021) investigated special education teachers’ perspectives regarding barriers and facilitators when using Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) with students with multiple disabilities. The author acknowledges that an assistive technology like AAC has the potential to facilitate language acquisition and communication competence among SMDs. More importantly, the author emphasizes that the use of AAC not only enhances inclusion into general education classrooms and increases levels of spoken language but it also decreases problem behaviors among SMDs.

The author investigated the following four research questions: 

  1. How do special education teachers perceive barriers to using AAC with SMDs?
  2. Are there significant differences in teachers’ perspectives regarding barriers to using AAC with SMDs based on: (a) gender; (b) previous use of AAC; and (c) attendance of AAC training programmes?
  3. Are there significant differences in teachers’ perspectives regarding barriers to using AAC with SMDs based on: (a) previous teaching experience; (b) level of education; and (c) number of students taught?
  4. How do special education teachers perceive facilitators when using AAC with students with multiple disabilities?

Here are the major takeaways from the article:

  • Aldabas (2021) refers to Raghavendra et al. (2012)1 and Rubin et al. (2009)2—“Students with severe disabilities, including SMDs, who have difficulties using natural speech in order to meet all of their communicative needs, are usually at high risk for reduced participation, with poorer peer relationships and greater exclusion from classroom activities.” Assistive technologies, including AAC, are able to support those students with these barriers.
  • The main barriers to effective integration of AAC within schools were associated with staff inadequacy, lack of AAC resources, lack of teacher training, a lack of college-level courses covering essential skills and knowledge about AAC, and lack of ongoing team collaboration between teachers and students.
  • Aldabas (2021) quotes Bruce, Trief, & Cascella (2011), “Language plays a key role when considering to use AAC.” Bruce, Trief, & Cascella (2011) found that teachers of SMDs noted that there were many benefits when using tangible symbols intervention, but the symbols needed to be labelled in both English and the family’s primary language. This indicates that language can also be a significant barrier. 
  • 172 special education teachers of SMDs participated in this study. The study was conducted in all schools in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia that offer educational services to different types of students including SMDs. The data was collected using a non-probability convenience sampling.
  • In response to the first research question, special education teachers identified the following top three barriers to using AAC with SMD: Difficulty in obtaining high- or low-tech AAC because of expense and lack of availability, difficulty in obtaining high- or low-tech AAC supporting the Arabic language, and lack of family collaboration in supporting the use of AAC. 
  • In response to the second research question, female special educators had a higher awareness of their lack of knowledge and skills as barriers to AAC use compared to their male counterparts. Additionally, special educators who had experience with using AAC viewed these barriers more seriously than those who did not. Participants who had attended training on AAC were more knowledgeable about these barriers than those who had not attended training.
  • In response to the third research question, the participants’ teaching experience, the level of education, and the number of SMDs taught did not have an effect on the respondents’ perceptions of barriers associated with teaching SMDs.
  • In response to the fourth research question, the participants perceived the following as the top facilitators of AAC for students with disabilities: providing a special room with AAC, providing AAC support in the Arabic language, providing AAC at affordable prices, and providing sufficient times to train SMDs to use AAC.
  • The most significant barriers for [the participants] were access to AAC, family support, and professional training, all of which should be supplied by the school environment, namely, the school administration . . . The three sets of facilitators—teacher training, awareness programmes, and SMDs’ family collaboration—could go a long way to addressing some of the most serious barriers to AAC as identified by respondents” (Aldabas, 2021).
  • The study has a few limitations, such that the sample size is relatively small and that the data is restricted to schools in Riyadh. Moreover, the participants were special educators only. Future research could target other stakeholders and other geographical locations. Research on barriers and facilitators other than schools, students, and teachers may provide a more holistic understanding of the effectiveness of AAC among SMDs. 

Summarized Article:

Aldabas, R. (2021). Barriers and facilitators of using augmentative and alternative communication with students with multiple disabilities in inclusive education: Special education teachers’ perspectives. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 25(9), 1010-1026.

Summary by: Michael Ho—Michael supports the MARIO Framework because it empowers learners to take full control of their personalized learning journey, ensuring an impactful and meaningful experience.

Additional References:

  1. Raghavendra, P., C. Olsson, J. Sampson, R. Mcinerney, and T. Connell. 2012. “School Participation and Social Networks of Children with Complex Communication Needs, Physical Disabilities, and Typically Developing Peers.” Augmentative and Alternative Communication 28 (1): 33–43. doi:10.3109/07434618.2011.653604; 
  2. Rubin, K. H., W. M. Bukowski, and B. Laursen. 2009. Handbook of Peer Interactions, Relationships, and Groups. New York, NY: Guilford.
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We are a dedicated group of learners that are constantly seeking to improve the lives of the children we care for. Whether you are a teacher, parent, assistant, or administrator, we give you free access to the most recent special education related research and practices available. Our twice monthly MARIO Memo summarizes and shares studies from peer-reviewed journals, while our learning letters provide insights from MARIO classrooms.

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