Introduction - What Can Help Autistic People to Speak
Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) fall under the category of pervasive developmental disorders. Autism primarily impairs an individual’s ability to communicate, as well as to form appropriate social skills. Individuals with higher-functioning autism, such as Asperger’s syndrome (AS), often can speak, although they lack in other areas of communication. They typically don’t notice or understand non-verbal cues, such as gestures, tone of voice, and emotional reactions. Most autistic individuals, however, have impaired speech and language skills, or are fully non-verbal. Speech therapists and other professionals often use communication devices and systems to help autistic people “speak” and otherwise communicate when they previously lacked the ability to do so.
AAC – Augmentative and Alternative Communication
AAC, or augmentative and alternative communication, represents communication devices for autistic people and other individuals with impaired speech or language skills. Combined with speech therapy, AAC devices and systems provide a means for autistic individuals to “speak” and communicate - in essence, providing a “voice” for those who previously had none.
The Picture Exchange Communication System, known as PECS, is one of the easiest and least expensive forms of AAC. Picture cards depicting common objects and actions can initiate and facilitate communication for those who are non-verbal, or have impaired speech and language skills. Through individual picture cards, or incorporated into a game, PECS works through a series of six phases to help an autistic person progress in his or her acquisition of speech. The paired action of exchanging a picture card of a desired object with a communication partner (e.g., parent, teacher, or speech therapist) who says what the picture represents as he or she hands the object to the autistic individual, or assists with the activity, helps him or her to make the connection between the picture and what it represents. Research studies have revealed statistics demonstrating the success of regular PECS use, resulting in autistic individuals acquiring speech and language skills.
PECS book with pages of individual picture cards and a sentence strip at the bottom.
Voice Output Communication Aids, known as VOCAs, are a step above PECS. Using a similar pictorial representation as symbols on the keys or buttons, these hand-held devices provide pre-recorded messages that “say” the name of the objects or actions depicted on the keys or buttons. This action helps autistic individuals communicate needs, as well as participate in class or family activities.
This VOCA is a “Voice in a Box” that allows an autistic individual to communicate.
Two additional forms of AAC devices or systems that can help autistic individuals acquire speech and language skills include the following:
These devices are similar to VOCAs, but represent a slightly more advanced form. Type-and-talk devices, such as the Dynawrite by Dynavox Mayer-Johnson, are more appropriate for older individuals who are familiar with a traditional computer keyboard. The device “speaks” as the person types. 
Adaptive Computers and Keyboards
At the higher end of AAC devices and systems are computers equipped with special software, touch screen monitors, and keyboards with overlays containing image symbols. The keyboard overlay has pictorial images similar to PECS cards, instead of the traditional letters, numbers, and symbols. The touch screen allows the autistic individual to navigate by touch, rather than with the standard mouse.
Computer equipped with touch screen monitor and adaptive overlay on the keyboard.
What can help autistic people to speak? Communication devices for autistic people, known as AAC, or augmentative and alternative communication devices and systems, represent some of the most effective means to grant a form of “speech” and communication to those who were previously unable to do so. Two of the main categories of AAC are Picture Exchange Communication System, known as PECS, and Voice Output Communication Aids, known as VOCAs. Other forms of AAC include type-to-talk devices, and adaptive computer and keyboards. Various research studies have demonstrated that regular use of PECS, in particular, has in fact helped non-verbal autistic people acquire speech and language skills.
References and Resources
Pyramid Educational Consultants. What is PECS? Retrieved from https://www.pecsusa.com/pecs.php
Pyramid Educational Consultants . Research. Retrieved from https://www.pecsusa.com/research.php
Autism Epic Center. PECS Gets Results. Retrieved from https://www.autismepicenter.com/PECS.shtml
Special Education Services. Assistive Technology for Children with Autism. Retrieved from https://www.specialed.us/autism/assist/asst10.htm
Dynavox Mayer-Johnson. Dynawrite. Retrieved from https://www.dynavoxtech.com/products/dynawrite/
Dynavox Mayer-Johnson. AAC Devices. Retrieved from https://www.dynavoxtech.com/Products/default.aspx
NATHHAN. Christian Families Homeschooling Special Needs Children. Retrieved from https://www.nathhan.com/church.htm
Research Autism. Improving the Quality of Life. Retrieved from https://www.researchautism.net/pages/welcome/home.ikml
Understanding Special Education. Speech Disorders and the IEP Process. Retrieved from https://www.understandingspecialeducation.com/speech-disorders.html
PECS book – photo by the article’s author, K’Lee Banks.
All other images, courtesy of autism consultant Susan Stokes and the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction; used by permission [ref 4].