Improving the Design of AAC Systems


For individuals with complex communication needs, the visual features of an AAC display play a key role in supporting successful use. At present, many AAC systems have limited visual appeal, and may be viewed as complex in ways that make the system less effective.

From a visual perspective, a well designed AAC display

  • is appealing
  • presents information clearly
  • is easy to learn and use

Research Activities

Our research challenge is to use what we know about learning/development and  human visual processing to design AAC systems that are fun,  linguistically powerful, and intuitive. When we design AAC systems that incorporate key visual features, individuals want to use them to communicate in play/leisure, academic, and social activities. We are exploring questions of visual design  through both basic (e.g.,  behavioral and neuro-imaging technologies) and applied research studies  (e.g., use of prototype displays in interactions that are personally relevant to the individual).  We also know that the complexity of programming demands has an impact on how often vocabulary is added to systems.  In order for AAC to be responsive to immediate needs, we have extensively explored and applied “just in time” (JIT) programming.  JIT softwares are key not only because they reduce the workload of adding vocabulary by not requiring everything to be compiled ahead of an interaction, but also because the resulting communication supports have been optimized for that particular individual and situation within any given moment.

As of July 2013, manuals for coding engagement with AAC materials and overt communication acts are complete and tested for reliability.   These manuals have been developed for the applied research studies testing the prototype displays during natural social interactions, and offer a means to test whether changes in system design positively affect functional communication.

Since 2014, in addition to research and development projects related to AAC design with the RERC on AAC collaborative partners, the focus at PSU has also included investigating:

Information Sharing

Recent publication and presentation activities include:

Holyfield, C., Drager, K., Light, J., Caron, J. (2017).  Typical toddlers’ participation in “Just-in-Time” programming of vocabulary for Visual Scene Display Augmentative and Alternative Communication apps on mobile technology: A Descriptive Study.   American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 1-13.

Wilkinson, K., Stutzman, A*., & Seisler, A. (2015). “N400” brain responses are evoked by semantic content in photographs: Implications for visual scene displays used for augmentative and alternative communication.  Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 31, 51-62. DOI: 10.3109/07434618.2014.965342  [Abstract]

Caron, J., Light, J., & Drager, K., (2015).  Operational Demands of AAC Mobile Technology Applications on Programming Vocabulary and Engagement During Professional and Child Interactions.  Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 23: 1-13.  [Abstract]

Wilkinson, K., Sainburg, R., Thomas, A., Regiec, C., Neumann, E., Liang, J. (November 12, 2015). Applications of Tools of Neuroscience to Enhance AAC System Design for Individuals with Down Syndrome. Seminar presentation at ASHA: Denver, Colorado.

Liang, J., Wilkinson, K., & Regiec, C. (November 12, 2015). Gaze Toward Social Interactions in Photographs by Individuals with Autism: Implications for AAC Design. Poster presentation at ASHA: Denver, Colorado.

Thistle, J., & Wilkinson, K. (2015).  Building Evidence-based Practice in AAC Display Design for Young Children: Current Practices and Future Directions.  Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 18:  1-13.

Light, J. & McNaughton, D. (April 2015).  Designing AAC Research and Intervention to Improve Outcomes for Individuals with Complex Communication Needs.  Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 22:1-12.  [Download]

Worah, S., McNaughton, D., Light, J., Benedek-Wood, E. (2015).  A comparison of two approaches for representing AAC vocabulary for young children.  International Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 1-10.  doi:10.3109/17549507.2014.987817 [Abstract]

Wilkinson, K. M., Dennis, N., Webb, C., Therrien, M.*, Stradtman, M.*, Hetzel, J.*, Leach, R.*, Warrenfeltz, M.*, & Zeuner, C.* (2015). Neural activity associated with visual search for line drawings on AAC displays: An exploration of the use of fMRI.Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 31, 310-324.  [Abstract]

Light, J., & McNaughton, D. (2014). From basic to applied research to improve outcomes for individuals who require augmentative and alternative communication: Potential contributions of eye tracking research methods. Augmentative and Alternative Communication30, 99-105.

Dube, WV & Wilkinson, KM (2014 Apr 29, Epub).  The Potential Influence of Stimulus Overselectivity in AAC: Information from Eye Tracking and Behavioral Studies of Attention with Individuals with Intellectual Disabilities.  Augmentative and Alternative Communication.  [Abstract]

Wilkinson, K. & Light, J. (2014 Apr 29, Epub).   Preliminary Study of Gaze Toward Humans in Photographs by Individuals with Autism, Down Syndrome, or Other Intellectual Disabilities: Implications for Design of Visual Scene Displays.  Augmentative and Alternative Communication.  [Abstract]

Wilkinson, K., & Mitchell, T. (2014 Apr 23, Epub).  Eye Tracking Research to Answer Questions about Augmentative and Alternative Communication Assessment and Intervention.  Augmentative and Alternative Communication.  [Abstract]

Wilkinson, K., O’Neill, T., & McIlvane, W. (2014).   Eye-Tracking Measures Reveal How Changes in the Design of Aided AAC Displays Influence the Efficiency of Locating Symbols by School-Age Children Without Disabilities.  Journal of Speech Language and Hearing Research, 57(2):455-66.  [Abstract].

Na, J. & Wilkinson, K. (November 16, 2013). Multicultural & Multilingual Perspectives on Assessing Early Development of Emotion in Children With CCN.  Poster session at ASHA in Chicago, IL.  [Handout].

Blackstone, S., Wilkinson, K., Na, J., & Thistle, J. (November 16, 2013).  Supporting the Development of Emotional Competencies in Children With Complex Communication Needs (CCN).  Seminar at ASHA in Chicago, IL.

Thistle, J., & Wilkinson, K. (November 14, 2013).  A Survey of SLPs’ Decisions When Designing Aided AAC Displays.  Technical Research presented at ASHA, in Chicago, IL.

Drager, K. (2013, July).  Children’s Representations of Early Language Concepts.  Presentation at 2013 ISAAC Annual Conference for AAC:  Israel.

Drager, K., (2013, July).  Considering the Design of AAC Systems for Young Children.  Presentation at 2013 ISAAC Annual Conference for AAC:  Israel.

McNaughton, D., & Light, J. (2013). The iPad and Mobile Technology Revolution: Benefits and Challenges for Individuals who require Augmentative and Alternative Communication. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 29, 107-116.

Wilkinson, K., & McIlvane, W. J. (2013).  Perceptual factors influence visual search for meaningful symbols in individuals with intellectual disabilities and Down syndrome or autism spectrum disorders.  American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 118(5):353-64.  [Abstract]

Thistle, J., & Wilkinson, K. (2013 Jul 31, Epub).    Working Memory Demands of Aided Augmentative and Alternative Communication for Individuals with Developmental Disabilities.   Augmentative and Alternative Communication.  [Abstract].

Wilkinson, K. M., Light, J., Nauss, J., Thistle, J., Na, J., & Belis, K. (April 2013).  Applications of data from eye-tracking studies for improving the design of clinical materials for individuals with intellectual disabilities.  Poster presented at the Tobii Eyetracking Conference on Behavioral Research, Boston, MA.

Wilkinson, K. M., Light, J., & Drager, K. (2012). Considerations for the composition of Visual Scene Displays: Potential contributions of information from visual and cognitive sciences.  Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 28, 137-147.  [Free PMC Article]  2012 Editor’s Award for Journal of AAC.

Thistle, J., & Wilkinson, K. M. (2012). What are the attention demands of aided AAC?  Perspectives on Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 21, 17-22.

Wilkinson, K. M., O’Neill, T., Nauss, J., Thistle, J., & McIlvane, W. J. (November 2012).  Responses to visual communication displays by individuals with intellectual disabilities. Symposium (Wilkinson, Chair) presented at the annual conference of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, Atlanta, GA.

Thistle, J. & Wilkinson, K. (July, 2012). Working Memory in Select Etiologies: AAC Implications. Presentation at 15th Biennial Conference of the International Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication (ISAAC) in Pittsburgh, PA.

Wilkinson, K. M., O’Neill, T., Nauss, J., Thistle, J., & McIlvane, W. J. (March 2012).  Eye tracking helps reveal mechanisms underlying facilitation of responses to visual communication displays by individuals with and without intellectual disabilities.  Symposium at the annual Gatlinburg Conference on Research and Theory in Mental Retardation/Developmental Disabilities (Wilkinson, Chair), Annapolis, MD.

Light, J. (January, 2012).  Designing Effective AAC Technologies for Beginning Communicators.  On-line presentation with the Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) as part of their AT Research Conversations.

Wilkinson, K.M., & Light, J. (2011).  Preliminary investigation of visual attention to human figures in photographs:  Potential considerations for the design of aided AAC visual scene displays.  Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research, 54, 1644-1657.  [Free PMC Article].

Wilkinson, K. M., & Snell, J. (2011). Facilitating children’s ability to distinguish symbols for emotions: The effects of background color cues and spatial arrangement of symbols on accuracy and speed of search. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 20, 288-301.  [Free PMC Article].

Stutzman, A., Wilkinson, K. M., & Seisler, A. (2011, November). Visual Scene Displays evoke N400 brain responses similar to words. Presentation at the Annual Conference of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, San Diego, CA.   [Poster]

Thistle, J., & Wilkinson, K. M. (2011, November). Working Memory and attention in utilizing aided AAC displays. Presentation at the Annual Conference of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, San Diego, CA. [Poster]

Wilkinson, K. M., McIlvane, W. J., Weasen, K., & O’Neill, T. (2011). Gaze fixation during search for a symbol on AAC displays. Presentation at the Annual Conference of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, San Diego, CA.  [Poster]

Drager, K. D., Reichle, J., & Pinkoski, C. (2010). Synthesized speech output and children: a scoping review. American Journal of Speech Language Pathology, 19, 259–273.  [Abstract]

Thistle, J. & Wilkinson, K. (2009).  The effects of color cues on typically developing preschoolers’ speed of locating a target line drawing: implications for augmentative and alternative communication display design.  American Journal of Speech Language Pathologists, 18(3):  231-40.  [Abstract].

Light, J. (2009). AAC interventions to maximize language development for young children [Webcast]

Wilkinson, K., Carlin, M., & Thistle, J. (2008).  The role of color cues in facilitating accurate and rapid location of aided symbols by children with and without down syndrome.  American Journal of Speech Language Pathologists, 17(2):179-93.  [Abstract].

Jagaroo, V. & Wilkinson, K. (2008).  Further considerations of visual cognitive neuroscience in aided AAC: the potential role of motion perception systems in maximizing design display.  Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 24 (1):  29-42.  [Abstract]

Light, J., & Drager, K. (2007). AAC technologies for young children with complex communication needs: State of the science and future research directions. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 23, 204–216. [Full Text]

Wilkinson, K., Carlin, M., & Jagaroo, V., (2006).  Preschoolers’ speed of locating a target symbol under different color conditions.  Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 22 (2):  123-33.  [Abstract]

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