TIES TIPS Communicative Competence

TIP #3:
Getting to Know Students who use AAC

TIES Center | TIES Inclusive Practice Series (TIPS)


Successful inclusive teams spend time preparing to engage students with multiple disabilities who require communication supports in class activities (Jorgensen, 2018).  Getting to know the Augmentative Alternative Communication (AAC) user requires the identification of the student’s multi-modal communication forms and intents; preferences; and their motor, vision, and hearing challenges. In addition, the identification of the environment, tasks, and tools (Zabala 2005) help teams select the appropriate AAC and assistive technology for successful class participation and membership.  This TIP describes how team members can develop and use student profiles, communication plans, and daily plans that can guide the successful involvement of students with significant communication needs in instructional and non-instructional activities in inclusive classrooms.


In a recent review of the literature for AAC use, Kleinert, Kearns, Liu, Thurlow, and Lazarus (2019) found that team planning for the specific student needs including communicative forms of students with communication challenges resulted in more AAC use (Biggs, Carter,& Gustafson, 2017; Hunt, Soto, Maier, Muller, & Goetz,  2002).


Augmentative alternative communication (AAC) refers to communication methods (other than oral speech) used to express thoughts, needs, wants, and ideas (Kleinert, Holman, McSheehan, & Kearns, 2010).

Multi-modal communication is the identification of communicative forms the student uses including AAC to express a variety of intents.  A student may use facial expressions, body language, gestures, signs, vocalizations, and AAC to communicate a variety of intentions. 

Partner-assisted scanning refers to the use of partners who assist individuals with significant communication needs by identifying possible response choices. 

Preference identification helps the team recognize multi-modal communication by compiling a list of communicative forms that appear when the student engages with these preferred items or activities. Identifying highly preferred items, activities, or people creates topics for conversation and increases the probability that the student will use the device to request highly preferred items or actions.

Motor, vision, and hearing needs identification are also essential to understanding the learner, how they communicate, and access issues that will need accommodations.

Environments, tasks, and tools help teams determine the best communication support for specific activities.


First, communicative forms and the related intents must be identified.  In this example, this student uses a variety of body language and eye gaze (forms) to communicate intents. He has eye gaze to the right for indicating “yes”, and to the left for expressing refusal or “no”.  He is a beginning AAC user. He uses a proximity switch with scanning to request, or seek attention.  Because his affirmation “yes” and “no” are consistent, He also uses partner assisted scanning to participate in conversations.

Communication Form

Intent (It means...)


Happy, engaged

Cries, Frowns

Not happy, hurting, uncomfortable

Looks to the left slightly


Looks to the right slightly


Next, the team identifies preferences. This student’s preferences include music and participating in conversations with friends. One effective strategy for identifying student preferences is to ask family members and friends that know the student well. And, when asking about the student’s preferences, ask not only about what they like but also how those preferences are typically communicated.

Student Preferences



  • Friends
  • Social Activities
  • Conversation
  • Music
  • Sitting for long periods
  • Being alone for too long
  • Touch without asking
  • In my face

Identify motor, vision, and hearing challenges that may impede access to information and AAC use. The student in the example experiences motor and vision challenges which will require additional response time and access options. He can use a proximity switch and a scanning device and voice output scanning device to access a more robust communication system. He has a very consistent confirmation ‘yes’ and refusal ‘no’ using his eye gaze. He may have a cortical visual impairment so the use of specific accommodations for both communication and for participating in class activities (e.g., black background and flashlight to highlight, bright red and yellow symbols on black backgrounds) may be helpful.





No problems with Hearing

May have cortical visual impairment

Uses wheel chair, positioning equipment, requires up to 8 seconds to perform motor movements

Some attendance problems due to health

Identify environments the student is in, communication tasks that occur there, and communication tools that can be used that are specific to the tasks and promote active participation.  For now, a clock scanner activated with a proximity switch with recorded greetings and messages will be used for class participation.  His team is investigating a blue tooth scanning device to provide more options. Since he has a good communicative yes/no, partner assisted scanning , will be an easy strategy for peers to use as he learns to use a scanning device to access a more robust vocabulary.

Communication Tasks


Communication Tasks

Communication Tools


Greeting Friends

Proximity switch paired with voice output switch.


Asking, sharing, telling, answering

Proximity switch paired with auditory scanning device / partner assisted scanning


Requesting choosing, Asking / sharing

Partner assisted scanning; proximity switch with auditory scanning

Lastly, creation of a student profile can capture a student’s overall current strengths, achievements, and expectations for the future.  This includes sharing information on how the student communicates, their preferences, and sensory means of access.  The identification of the communication strategies are supported by the implementation steps and tools described above, and by placing these communication strategies within the overall student profile, a deeper understanding and appreciation of the whole student is achieved.


Information about me.

Here are some things you should know about me. I understand what you are saying to me, however, I do best when you slow down your speech, give me time to process what you are saying and time to respond. I love working with other students my age. I enjoy getting out in the community and around school. I like flirting with girls.

Classes I might want to take:
  • Art
  • Robotics
  • Film or Acting
Tips for Helping Me Learn

When you are trying to teach me something, I do best when:

  • I have choices.
  • I can work with my friends and other students.
  • You acknowledge when I am saying something.
  • You interpret what I am trying to say and you let me tell you if you are correct by saying yes or no with my eyes.
Please do not:
  • Touch me without asking or telling me first.
  • Get in my personal space, especially in my face.
  • Assume I do not understand what you are saying.
  • Treat me like a small child.


It is essential to get communication systems in place for students with significant cognitive needs if they are to have meaningful participation in inclusive class activities. Understanding the needs and characteristics of these students, as well as their preferences and strengths provides the basis for making and implementing AAC decisions.  The team then uses this information to provide access through the development of materials and teaching the student to use new communication tools.  A student profile highlighting learning strengths, needs, and strategies that work including communication can then be created.


Creating a Personal Profile

Our Three Little Birds (2017, May 26). How to Make a One Page Profile, Ellie Style  

Identifying Personal Preferences Web Resource

Moss J. (1997, 2006). Personal Preference Indicators: A Guide for Planning PDF  

Partner-assisted Scanning Video

Cincinnati Children’s Hospital (2011, December 20). Communicating with Partner Assisted Scanning

SETT Framework: Student Environment Task Tool

Zabala, J. (2020). Sharing the SETT Framework


  • Amado, A. N., & McBride. (2001). Increasing person-centered thinking, improving the quality of person-centered planning: A manual for person-centered planning facilitators. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota, Institute on Community Integration.

  • Biggs, E. E., Carter, E. W., & Gustafson, J. (2017). Efficacy of peer support arrangements to increase peer interaction and AAC use. American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 122(1), 25–48.

  • Hunt, P., Soto, G., Maier, J., Muller, E., & Goetz, L. (2002). Collaborative teaming to support students with augmentative and alternative communication needs in general education classrooms. AAC Augmentative and Alterative Communication, 18, 20–34.

  • Jorgensen, C. (2018). Together we are better: Collaborative teaming to support authentic inclusion of student with complex support needs. Impact, 31(2).

  • Kleinert, J., Holman, A., McSheehan, M., & Kearns, J. F. (2017). The importance of developing communicative competence. In Jorgensen, C. Inclusion is More Than Just Being In. Baltimore, Maryland: Brookes Publishing Co.

  • Kleinert, J., Liu, K. K., Thurlow, M. L., & Lazarus, S. S. (2019). Communication competence in the inclusive setting: A review of the literature. In TIES Center Report (No. 103).

  • Moss, J. (1997). The personal preference indicator (Revised 2002, 2006vnw). Oklahoma City, Oklahoma: Center for Interdisciplinary Learning and Leadership/UCE, College of Medicine, University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, Publication No.

  • Sonnenmeier, R., McSheehan, M., & Jorgensen, C. (2005). A case study of team supports for a student with autism’s communication and engagement within the general education curriculum: Preliminary report of the beyond access model. Augmentative and Alterative Communication, 21, 101–115.

  • Zabala, J. (2005). Ready, SETT, Go! Getting started with SETT Framework. Closing the Gap, 23(6).

TIPS Series: Tip #3, January, 2020

All rights reserved. Any or all portions of this document may be reproduced without prior permission, provided the source is cited as:

  • Kearns, J., & Kleinert, J. (2020). Getting to know students who use AAC (TIPS Series: Tip #3). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, TIES Center.

TIES Center is supported through a cooperative agreement between the University of Minnesota (# H326Y170004) and the Research to Practice Division, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education. The Center is affiliated with the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) which is affiliated with the Institute on Community Integration (ICI) at the College of Education and Human Development, University of Minnesota. The contents of this report were developed under the Cooperative Agreement from the U.S. Department of Education, but do not necessarily represent the policy or opinions of the U.S. Department of Education or Offices within it. Readers should not assume endorsement by the federal government. Project Officer: Susan Weigert

The National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) leads the TIES Center partnership. There are six additional collaborating partners: Arizona Department of Education, CAST, University of Cincinnati, University of Kentucky, University of North-Carolina–Charlotte, and University of North Carolina–Greensboro.

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