AAC Considerations and Assessment in a Virtual Setting

10 minutes


Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) provides a way for learners with complex communication needs to express their wants, needs, and ideas. Assistive Technology (AT), including AAC, must be considered for learners with IEPs, regardless of their educational environment. Due to the pandemic, some learners with complex communication needs are receiving remote or distance instruction. Virtual assessments and considerations should be completed when these learners do not have access to robust communication.

Anticipated Outcome

Increased understanding of how to conduct an AAC assessment virtually to ensure learners with complex communication needs have the means to communicate in all settings.

Related Training

Whose Perspectives are Needed?

Just as any in-person AT or AAC assessment would be collaborative, a virtual AT or AAC assessment should also be collaborative. 

A virtual assessment provides great opportunities for school teams to partner with families. Educators can gain more insight about the environments and tasks required of the learner outside of the school setting. Differences in positioning options, lighting, access to outlets/electricity, and interests can (and should) be taken into account when completing an AAC assessment. Family members and caregivers can help provide helpful information about what is available in the home as well as if the learner’s responses or behaviors are typical when presented with interests or tasks. 

Other educational staff, including teachers, paraprofessionals, and ancillary staff (ex: SLPs, OTs, PTs, Social Workers, VI consultants, DHH consultants) should provide input about their areas of expertise. If they are unable to attend a session live, consider recording the virtual session to obtain their feedback. 

Most importantly, the learner’s input should be taken into consideration. This is the person who will decide if they want to use a specific tool, so without their input, something deemed “effective” by others may be ignored for other, less efficient tools.

Setting Up the Technology for a Virtual Assessment

One challenge with virtual assessments is the fact that the learner, the tools, and the setting cannot be as easily controlled or adapted by the evaluator. Educators overseeing a virtual assessment may have to rely on family members or caregivers to set up the tools and technology. 

Sarah Gregory, an SLP based out of New York, created several helpful videos on her YouTube page about supporting AAC in remote settings. The video entitled “How to View AAC in Virtual Learning” is particularly useful for families/caregivers who need assistance or ideas when setting up the technology from home. 

For assistance with participating in a Zoom meeting for an assessment, check out this handout from Tobii Dynavox: A Participant's Guide to Setting up a Virtual AAC Session Using Zoom

For assistance with participating in a Google Meet for an assessment, check out this Google Meet for Parents handout.

In addition to setting up the technology, family members and/or caregivers will need some coaching on how to guide the learner through assessment tasks. Encourage caregivers to describe what they see in order to recognize possible signs of success.

Tools and Assessments to Support the AAC Consideration Process

Several comprehensive AT and AAC frameworks are available as guides for educators completing an assessment. We encourage teams to complete these forms together in order to get a true idea of the learner and their needs. Interview-based assessments can assist evaluators with background information and how the learner currently communicates.

Here are four free interview-based assessments: 

  • Communication Matrix (Rowland)
    • Note this will be free for everyone until 2021. In 2021, 5 matrices will be free per year. Paid options will be available for those interested in completing more than 5 profiles. 
  • The Pragmatics Profile for People who use AAC (adapted by Martin, Small, & Stevens; original profile created by Dewart & Summers)
  • AAC Communication Needs Assessment (Tobii Dynavox)
  • Fonner Modified SETT (adapted by Fonner; originally developed by Zabala)
    • While the SETT is typically referred to for general AT, the forms found in the packet can be helpful when comprehensively considering the learner and their communication needs.

There are currently no standardized assessments for AAC. Some protocols, such as the TASP (Test of Aided-communication Symbol Performance) can be adapted through interactive platforms (ex: Google Slides, Pear Deck). For an example of how to do this, check out this YouTube video entitled “AAC Virtual Assessment Ideas Using Google Sides and Pear Deck” by Nikki Gelso, a California-based AT Specialist. (TASP overview and adaptation begins at 7:08)

Supporting Learners During the Consideration Process, Assessment, and Beyond

Learners need to be taught how to use AAC during the assessment and consideration process. If you’d like more information on how to support learners gain skills in utilizing AAC, check out the AAC Fundamentals and Universal Core Vocabulary Quick Wins. 

AAC companies can also be helpful when it comes to supporting AAC users, their families, and educators supporting them. Use the links below to find resources from specific AAC companies.

Completing the Evaluation for Funding

Once a tool has been identified as a possible solution, the learner will need to spend at least 30 days trialing the device or system for funding purposes. 

Your ISD’s lending library may have tools available locally. Michigan educators can also trial tools and devices from the Alt+Shift lending library. Items loaned from Alt+Shift can be sent directly to the learner’s home. Many AAC companies are also providing loaner devices at this time. 

In addition, AAC companies are extremely helpful with writing evaluations in order for devices to get funded through a learner’s insurance. They have representatives who can assist with answering questions. We encourage educators to ask for sample evaluations or templates for specific diagnoses, which may also improve the chance of the learner’s device being approved for funding. 

Final Thoughts

An AAC assessment is an on-going process. You may need multiple sessions to gather necessary information for the assessment - and that’s okay! Consider the learner’s attitude, behavior, and possibility of cognitive and/or physical fatigue when assessing. Consider all of these things for the learner’s family or caregiver, as well. 

It is better to start now and make adjustments rather than wait for the perfect time, setting, or scenario to begin. Your learners will thank you.