TIES TIPS Communicative Competence

TIP #28: Social Support for AAC Users

TIES Center, TIES Inclusive Practice Series TIPS.
A digital illustration with a target with five rings to indicate each student's Circle of Support. Each of the rings is labeled. Starting from the furthest outward ring from the middle to the middle of the target, the labels read Circle 5: Unfamiliar Community, Circle 4: Paid Support, Circle 3: Acquaintances, Circle 2: Close Friends, and Circle 1: Family.

Figure 1. Circles of support. Adapted from Circles of Communication Partners [1999], by Blackstone, S., Communication partners. Augmentative Communication News, 12((1) (2)), 1–16, 16. (edited)


Students with complex communication needs who are using or are beginning to use Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) benefit from social support from peers and adults. This TIP describes circles of social support and the many communication strategies that the AAC communicator might use with partners who know them best. It also describes strategies that the AAC communicator may use with less familiar communication partners. Being able to use a variety of strategies helps the student communicate in many types of situations for different purposes.


The concept of Circles of Support has been successfully used to enhance inclusive education as well as communication for decades (Falvey, Forest, Pearpoint, & Rosenberg 1994; Blackstone, 1999). The idea behind this concept is to acknowledge the importance of, and need for, layers of friendships and social relationships for any student, particularly those with disabilities. For example, this image of a bullseye highlights five rings. The rings are labeled as Circle 1 - the innermost circle that includes family members, Circle 2 - close friends, Circle 3- acquaintances, Circle 4 - paid support in the person’s life (i.e., medical providers), and Circle 5 - unfamiliar community members. Paying attention to who fills the circles of support for a student informs the team about communication partners. Intentionally creating activities and opportunities for relationships to develop can increase membership and belonging for the student in their community (Carter & Biggs 2021).

Communication for AAC users may differ across social circles (Blackstone & Berg, 2003), as shown in the bullseye figure. Communication partners in the center circle, Circle 1 (the student’s family), are the most familiar to the AAC user. They may use and understand all communication forms (e.g. signs, gestures, vocalizations, and devices) that the student uses. In contrast, communication partners in the outer circles, Circles 4 and 5, are less familiar communication partners and may not use or understand all communication forms that the student uses. Across all the circles, the student may use a range of AAC. For example, the student may use body language and facial expressions in regular routines with family members. However, with communication partners in the outer circles, the student may use technology-based AAC devices. It is common for AAC users who are not yet effectively using AAC to rely on direct support from the people who know them best. When a beginning AAC user communicates with less familiar persons in Circles 4 and 5, their communication is more likely to be misunderstood if not accompanied by a familiar communication partner.

Strategies to Support AAC Users in using Multimodal Communication Across their Social Circles:

1. Increase communication opportunities with both familiar and unfamiliar communication partners from across the social network circles at home, school, and the community. This allows the student to use the communication form that works best for the situation.

2. Maintain a Communication Dictionary with video clips that show how the student communicates. A dictionary helps less familiar communication partners become more familiar with how the student communicates. It also helps team members think about AAC options to promote more conventional communication that is understood easily across the circles of support.


When s/he/they does this...

We think it means this...

We should do this...

Possible AAC Options

Enter the Classroom

Smiles with vocalization


Return the greeting

  • Understood gesture, facial expression, and body language
  • Simple voice output device with single message in English and Spanish
  • Speech generating device with word/symbols/typing English/Spanish

Offered a choice

Turns head away

No thanks

Acknowledge the refusal and repeat with another option

  • Partner assisted scanning

3. The content of AAC must be meaningful to the student, and include culturally relevant topics, words, and phrases reflective of those used by peers and family members. Engage the student and their peers in suggesting words the student might use. In this image, the social words and symbols created with the app CoughDrop use some slang words popular with peers. The images include "hey", "What’s Up?", "I don’t know", "amazing", "cap" (stop/don’t), "bussin" (ok, cool), "oops", and "boring". In addition, nouns will be unique to the AAC user or context.

Image of an AAC device with picture symbols and their labels of everyday phrases that a student may use with their peers.

This vocabulary example created with Boardmaker includes images of s’mores, crackers, chocolate bars, and marshmallows. The images are relevant to a favorite activity.

Picture symbols depicting s'more, crackers, chocolate bar, and marshmallows.

4. Teach and coach communication partners, including family members and peers, to communicate with the student. Encourage familiar communication partners to acknowledge communication attempts. Provide models for unfamiliar partners to increase the frequency and quality of their interactions with the student. Use the communication dictionary to help new partners understand the form and meaning of the student’s communication.

5. Increase exposure to vocabulary and language structure, as well as reading, writing, and spelling. Learning to spell words provides an additional AAC mode that may be easier to use in some cases (Erikson & Kopenhaver, 2019). As communication and language increase, more words are added to the device and symbols may be replaced by words only. Learning to type words increases the efficiency of communication as text-to-speech is an efficient form of communication.

6. Encourage and support the AAC User to teach communication partners across their social circles how their device works and what communication works best for them.

An example of a simplified AAC device that only has each letter of the alphabet.


Considering how communication differs across social network circles helps identify the most efficient communication forms a student may use. It also helps in planning ways to increase certain types of communication forms across different situations and partners. For example, a student may use a conventional head shake to say "no". This gesture is understood across social circles. Yet, an AAC device might be needed during a doctor’s appointment, to provide information to the cafeteria helper, or to share a joke with a friend because of the complexity of the message. It is helpful to have potential communication partners learn how the student uses their communication device, and for the student to know when different communication forms might help them to be understood.


  • Blackstone, S. (1991). Interaction with the partners of AAC consumers: Part I. Augmentative Communication News, 4(2), 1–3.
  • Blackstone, S. (1999). Communication partners. Augmentative Communication News, 12((1) (2)), 1–16, 16.
  • Blackstone, S., & Hunt Bert, M. (2003). Social networks: A communication inventory for individuals with severe communication challenges and their communication partners. Monterey, CA: Augmentative.
  • Carter, E. W., & Biggs, E. E. (2021). Creating communities of belonging for students with significant cognitive disabilities (Belonging Series). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, TIES Center.
  • Erikson, K., & Kopenhaver, D. (2019). Comprehensive Literacy for All: Teaching Students with Significant Disabilities to Read and Write. Baltimore: Paul Brookes.
  • Falvey, M., Forest, M., Pearpoint, J., & Rosenberg, R. (1994). All my life’s a circle. In Using the tools: Circles, MAP’s and PATH. Toronto, Canada: Inclusion Press.

TIPS Series: Tip #28, September 2022

The information in this Brief is not an endorsement of any identified products. Products identified in this Brief are shared solely as examples to help communicate information about ways to reach the desired goals for students.

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

  • Kearns, J. (2022). Social Support for AAC Users. (TIPS Series: Tip #28). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, TIES Center.

TIES Center is the national technical assistance center on inclusive practices and policies. Its purpose is to create sustainable changes in kindergarten-grade 8 school and district educational systems so that students with significant cognitive disabilities can fully engage in the same instructional and non-instructional activities as their general education peers, while being instructed in a way that meets individual learning needs. TIES Center is led by the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) at the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, and includes the following 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.

TIES Center is supported through a Cooperative Agreement (#H326Y170004) with the Research to Practice Division, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Education or Offices within it. Project Officer: Susan Weigert

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