Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) can be used by people who cannot rely on speech. We start an AAC journey by presuming competence. When we assume competence, we understand that opportunities and instruction are needed. We believe in a person's ability to communicate and learn.

Doing this is often called the “least dangerous assumption”.

Meaning it is far more dangerous not to believe and do nothing than presume competence and start using AAC.

“Start by presuming that your learner is on their way to developing competence. Good intervention, consistent language models, the right tools, and plenty of practice will move them along the journey toward improved communication. It’s important that, we truly believe that. Yes, your clients may be impaired, perhaps significantly so, but they will certainly know if you don’t believe in their abilities. Presume competence.” Carole Zangari from Praactical AAC.

What does it mean to presume competence?

To presume competence means assuming everyone can learn, think, and understand. Presuming competence for AAC users is based on two principles. These apply to all human beings, regardless of diagnosis.

  1. Everyone can learn
  2. Everyone has something to say

1. Everyone can learn

When a person is not able to communicate using speech, there is a lot we don’t know. We can’t be sure about their ability to understand and use language. We don’t yet know their skills and potential. But we must make the least dangerous assumption by presuming competence. We need to provide the right AAC tools. We need to allow time and training with those tools. We have no way to know a person’s potential without this. Everyone can learn and grow, given appropriate training and tools. This doesn’t mean that everyone can learn everything. You may never be a championship skier, but you can learn basic moves with the proper instruction, practice, and ski equipment that fits you properly. But without skis and instruction, you will never realize your potential as a skier. It’s the same with communication for non-speaking people. Everyone has potential, but the right AAC system and effective instruction are needed before that potential can be revealed and realized.

2. Everyone has something to say

Everyone has something to say. Every person has ideas on the inside. This is there, regardless of how they appear to the outside observer. They have feelings, observations, preferences, opinions, stories, memories, and dreams. Some people do not yet have a way to express these inner ideas. Those ideas are still real and there. Our goal should be to allow every communicator to express their inner thoughts. We need to give them a way to do this that everyone can understand. These rich inner thoughts extend beyond just requesting. It includes being able to say anything to anyone at any time.

Presuming competence - AAC device considerations

When we believe everyone has something to say and can learn, it influences the AAC system and vocabulary we choose. We will choose vocabulary that allows people to reveal and realize their potential. And to give them a way to express their inner thoughts. To do this, all AAC systems should contain these three things.

1. Access to a large vocabulary

People who cannot rely on speaking are in a unique and vulnerable position. They literally can’t say what we don’t give them the words for. This is why we should choose a vocabulary that provides access to as many words as possible. We just don’t know what someone who can’t speak will want to say when they’re given a voice with all the words. Give them all the words so they can say it!

2. The ability to communicate for all the reasons

There are so many different reasons why people communicate. We often start with requesting when we teach AAC because this feels like the easiest place to start. But there are so many other reasons humans communicate to express their rich inner lives. If we’re presuming competence, we must assume that everyone needs access to all these reasons to communicate.

3. Access to the alphabet

An AAC system should not only presume competence for learning a symbol-based communication system. It should also presume competence for learning some level of literacy. The ability to spell independently gives an AAC user freedom of expression. They will no longer be dependent on a caregiver or therapist to add words to the AAC system. However, even if full literacy isn’t reachable, any degree of spelling is an asset. For example, using initial letter sounds or invented spelling to express something not in the AAC vocabulary is an invaluable skill. An AAC system that presumes competence and the ability to learn should also give easy and full access to the alphabet!

Attitude matters

All humans should be treated with respect and dignity. Someone with a communication difficulty or speech impediment or disorder using AAC is no different. Presume competence in someone’s abilities, in their unique skills, and their thoughts—our attitude to their communication and learning matters. Our attitude changes the way we interact and the opportunities we might provide.

No prerequisites

There are not any prerequisites to using AAC. Communicators should not have to demonstrate specific skills before they can be eligible to access AAC. They are never too young or too old to start AAC. They do not have to prove themselves. Presuming competence means an AAC user is given the tools and instruction they need to learn, regardless of their speech impediment, diagnosis, or degree of difference.

The next step

Presuming competence means we presume everyone is a unique individual with something to say.

Once we have done this, we can select a balanced AAC system that gives the AAC user the words they need. We can support the AAC user in a way that suits them.

Everyone can learn. Everyone has something to say. But we won’t know what that is until we give them the chance.

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