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Autonomous Communication & AAC

Avaz’s resident SLP, Niveditha, take a deep dive into the subject of autonomous communication and how it builds self determination. This is part one of a two part series on autonomous communication in the in the context of AAC.

What is Autonomous Communication?

Gayle Porter talks about autonomous communication as

Being able to say whatever I want to say, whenever I want to say it, to whomever I want to say it, however I want to say it.

It is important to have enough tools and skills at your disposal to be able to communicate your own personal intentions.

There is often a confusion between Autonomous communication and Independent communication. Let us resolve that first.

child has communication autonomy

Autonomy vs Independence in Communication

Did you know that it is possible for a person who uses partner assisted scanning to have autonomous communication. This means that they are able to choose their intended message from a robust vocabulary. Due to their complex bodies, they may not be independent with their communication device. But, they are autonomous.

Autonomy should be the goal of therapy. By working towards autonomy we are working towards equipping communicators with the power of self determination.

If we choose Independence as the primary goal, we might simplify the AAC system to accommodate their motor limitations. They will be able to select and produce messages independently. That said, autonomy will suffer. A simplified set of symbols may not allow them to communicate their intended message.

Emergent Communicators

A communicator is considered emergent if they communicate with their body. Rather than communicating messages, they are primarily reacting to the stimuli. That said, we can support autonomy at this stage as well.

When someone has difficulty in communicating, we just do our best to interpret them.

People around them really end up making the decisions for them. The more emergent you are in your communication skills, the more you have to be interpreted by other people.

People with developmental disabilities often have reduced choice and control. They are  rewarded  for compliance and punished  for speaking out. When such an emergent communicator expresses a negative opinion, it is very likely to be interpreted as a challenging behavior. It may not be viewed as an opinion to be valued and considered.

If our goal is to teach people to be autonomous, then they need to experience choice and control from as young an age as possible. They need to experience that when they express any opinion, even negative, it is valued.

Important Considerations for Autonomous Communication 

  1. Avoiding excessive prompts and cues: We should avoid too many prompts. Instead, we should be modelling communication. This should be accompanied by exploration (babbling with the AAC) without prompts and cues. We need to support them and make them understand that the AAC system is their voice. And NOT more work. 
  2. Modelling our interpretation: We need to model how we interpret their body language. We can do this by using the “I wonder” statement. We can model the language they can use with their AAC, and wait for them to respond. If they choose to express something, then we follow that. In case they don’t, we let it go. If they’re successful using gestures or facial expression, we should definitely support them. After all, total communication is our goal!
  3. Supporting exploration: When the child is exploring their AAC device, we can see a lot of babbling. The onus is on us to be responsive partners. This is similar to a typical child who starts babbling – we allow them to engage in that learning experience and model our responses .
  4. Providing specific feedback: We should aim to provide specific feedback. This will help the  user to learn more. This will also enable them to learn to be more contextual in their communication. 


Autonomy in communication is an important goal in therapy. It is key for the development of self determination in a communicator. Autonomous communication is very different from independent communication. Once we understand this, we can successfully enable autonomous communication.

In Part II of this series, we will look at the steps involved in developing in developing autonomy. You can read it by clicking here.


Niveditha Ryali

Speech – Language – Swallowing Therapist

I have years of experience that comes from working in NHS(UK), special schools, hospitals and private practice. My passions are working on improving Speech, Language and Swallowing skills in children and adults. I also strive to facilitate early communication in children with complex communication needs, thereby improving parent-child bonding.

Niveditha Ryali, SLP, Avaz Inc

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1 thought on “Autonomous Communication & AAC”

  1. Very clear explanation about difference between autonomy and independence..
    Yes, I have always been insisting only on independence and not on autonomy till now. Thanks for making it clear
    Waiting for next blog to know more

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