Communication aids

Communication aids are designed to support people who have difficulties with speaking or understanding what is being said to them. 

This might include people who are autistic, or who have cerebral palsy or learning disabilities

Maria laughing with her VOCA (voice output communication aid).

We all might use gestures and expressions naturally to enhance our communication. For example, you might raise your coffee cup in someone’s direction while asking if they want a cup of coffee – and they might give you a thumbs up, to show that they do!

Communication aids, or augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices, are specific methods that are useful for people with complex needs.

Find out more about the different types of communication aid available, and how to choose one that’s right for you. 

On this page:

What are communication aids?

Communication aids are anything that helps someone to communicate.

This includes everything from bespoke technological devices, to picture books. 

Communication aids are often used by people with learning disabilities, autism and other disabilities who struggle to communicate by speaking. 

You might hear communication aids referred to as AAC devices. AAC stands for augmentative and alternative communication.

What is augmentative and alternative communication (AAC)?

Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) is any kind of communication that falls outside of typical spoken communication. 

AAC might also be referred to as non-formal communication

Who is AAC for?

Augmentative and alternative communication strategies can be used by anyone. 

We all use ways of communicating beyond spoken language. For example, you might point to something, or give a “thumbs-up” sign. These are both examples of augmentative and alternative communication. 

Often, AAC devices or communication aids are used by people who are non-speaking. This might include people with:

AAC is often categorised as either “aided” or “unaided”. 

Unaided communication

This kind of communication is anything that only uses the body. You don’t need any extra tools or devices for unaided communication. 

This type of communication might include:

  • Gestures
  • Body language
  • Facial expressions
  • Signing

Aided communication

This kind of communication uses the tools, objects or devices known as communication aids. 

This might include:

  • Pictures
  • Symbols
  • Communication boards
  • Communication books
  • AAC devices

What is an AAC device?

An AAC device is a device that has been designed to help a person to communicate. 

It might be a non-electronic item like a book or picture cards. 

It might be an electronic device that helps a person to express themselves using voice output. 

Or it could be an app or a piece of software installed on a mobile phone, computer or tablet.

Types of communication aids

Communication aids or AAC devices can come in many different forms. 

Broadly, they are split into two categories. 

Electronic AAC devices

Electronic AAC devices are purpose-made bits of assistive technology that support people to communicate. 

This could be a tablet or device that a non-speaking person uses solely to communicate.

Or it could be an app or piece of software that runs on a phone or tablet. 

Paper-based AAC devices

Paper-based AAC devices include anything that isn’t electronic, but does support someone to communicate. 

It might be a communication board or book, or a set of picture exchange communication system (PECS) cards. 

Communication aids examples

These are some common examples of communication aids used by people with complex disabilities. 

Voice output communication aids (VOCAs)

Voice output communication aids (or VOCAs) are devices that allow non-speaking people to communicate with speech. 

A VOCA is an example of an electronic AAC device

It looks a bit like an iPad, or another kind of tablet. The user clicks on letters or pictures either on buttons or a touch screen. The VOCA says what they’ve clicked on out loud. 

There are lots of different types of VOCA available. Some of them use a synthesised (not real) voice, while others might use a recorded real voice. 

Read Maria’s review of what it’s like to use her VOCA.

Picture exchange communication system (PECS)

The picture exchange communication system, also known as PECS, is a way of communicating using simple pictures. 

It’s an example of a paper-based AAC device

The pictures and symbols are printed on cards, which can be used to communicate. Often, it’s used as a way of making requests.

For example, a child might hand a PECS card featuring a picture of an apple on it to their carer. In return, the carer would give them an apple. 

Sometimes people put their PECS cards in a book, called a PECS book or a communication book. 

Communication books

A communication book is a special book or ring binder that has symbols and pictures inside it. 

It’s a type of paper-based AAC device

Pointing to the symbols and pictures in the book can be a way for non-speaking people to communicate. 

Every communication book is unique, as it will contain symbols and pictures that are relevant to the person who uses it. 

Some might have lots of pictures in them, and others might only have a few. 

E-tran frames

E-tran frames are plastic sheets that can have pictures or symbols stuck onto them. 

People can then point with their eyes to the pictures, symbols, letters, numbers and words in order to communicate. 

E-tran frames are a type of paper-based AAC device

Augmentative and alternative communication software and apps

Some people use apps that they can install on their phone or table to communicate. 

These apps are another example of electronic AAC devices

The apps might work similarly to AAC devices like VOCAs.

For example, there is an app called TouchChat which allows you to click on symbols and pictures, and will then say those words out loud. 

Choosing a communication aid that works for you

Before choosing any communication aids to support someone with communication needs, you should get a full assessment from a speech and language therapist. 

Professional support is always useful before you choose a specialist device. 

An assessment will cover the person’s motor, cognitive, language and communication strengths and weaknesses. 

Communication Matters have more in-depth information about the different types of communication aids available. 

This includes information about suppliers, possible funding sources for specialist computer systems and communication aids, IT support and more.

Support from Sense

We’re here for people with complex disabilities and their families all over the UK. Get in touch to find out more about the services we offer.

This content was last reviewed in November 2023. We’ll review it again in 2025.