AAC 101: What is Communication? - Part 1

This is part 1 of a six part series on AAC 101:  A Primer for Supporting an Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) User. Look for parts 2 through 6 coming up over the next several weeks.

What is Communication?

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”  -George Bernard Shaw

As speech-language pathologists, we tend to focus on the development of speech and language skills, while sometimes forgetting to focus on their ultimate purpose: to communicate.

So, what is communication?  

The National Joint Committee for the Communicative Needs of Persons with Severe Disabilities defines communication as, “any act by which one person gives to or receives from another person information about that person’s needs, desires, perceptions, knowledge, or affective states.  Communication may be intentional or unintentional, may involve conventional or unconventional signals, may take linguistic or nonlinguistic forms, and may occur through spoken or other modes.”

Note that the focus in this definition is on the shared meaning between communication partners.  It is not on speech, or even on language, but on interaction.  

Note, too, that per this definition, unintentional behaviors and nonlinguistic forms can signal communication.

Communication, then, can more simply be defined as the process of exchanging ideas and information; involving the encoding, or formulation, of ideas and the decoding, or processing of them.

In order for communication to happen, the partners involved need to:

  • Be aware of the cause-effect relationships between one’s behavior and the other’s

  • Have something to communicate or exchange

Language, on the other hand, is a code that has been developed in a culture that uses specific symbols that have arbitrarily been determined to mean something.  (A symbol stands for something else, with no apparent prior relationship.)

Susan Berkowitz, MS CCC-SLP, MEd., has been a speech-language pathologist for 40 years. She has worked mostly with children and adults with Autism, Cerebral Palsy, and other developmental disabilities, as well as 8 years in the language-based classrooms in a school district. Susan has worked in public and non-public schools, residential settings, and nonprofit community agencies. She has written for peer-reviewed professional journals and presented at international conferences. Visit her website  and blog for additional resources. For her complete resume, click here.