Social Interactions of Students with Disabilities Who Use Augmentative and Alternative Communication in Inclusive Classrooms (summary)


The importance of peer interaction for students with severe disabilities has been recognised for a long time, with peer interactions promoting development and learning in school-age children. There is evidence that good peer interaction experiences are associated with a range of positive outcomes whilst the reverse is true of a lack of peer relationships.

Peer interactions and friendships are often limited for students with intellectual disabilities or autism and this can particularly be the case for pupils in these groups who use augmentative and alternative communication (AAC).

There is little research into this group of students’ interactions in mainstream classrooms, particularly when students have one to one adult support. Some earlier papers have reported that in social interactions with typically developing peers students with intellectual disabilities who used AAC primarily responded rather than initiating interactions, and used AAC systems less than other communication modes. In addition interactions with adults were a lot more common than with peers.

What did the authors do?

The researchers aimed to describe the social interactions of students with developmental disabilities and who used AAC, within mainstream classes in America.

Sixteen students with intellectual disabilities and/or autism took part in the study. The participants used a range of aided and unaided AAC. Most were the only pupil with special needs in their mainstream lesson.

The students were observed in classes that specialist teachers had identified as providing most natural peer interaction opportunities and teachers were asked to continue their typical lesson delivery. Each student was observed on four separate occasions.

What did they find?

Some form of social interaction between students with disabilities and the peers and/or adults occurred in around two-thirds of the observation periods. The majority of these were exclusively with adults. Less than 5% of interactions involved only peers and less than 6% both peers and adults. 3 of the participants were never seen to interact with their peers.

The length of the interactions was very variable and less than 15% were initiated by the student with disabilities.

When the students who used AAC took part in interactions the modes of communication most often used were facial expression, gestures and vocalisations.

The functions of the initiated interactions varied between the typically developing students and those with disabilities. The former group most often provided instructions or comments, the latter expressing wants and needs and trying to develop social closeness.

Across all of the various different teaching contexts: large group teaching, independent working and small group teaching, around 90% of interactions for the people who used AAC involved adults. Moat interactions with adults were with the participant’s 1:1 support workers who were usually in close proximity throughout the lessons. There was more variation in interaction with peers, with most occurring during small-group teaching.


It can be difficult for people who use AAC to develop good peer relationships through communicative interactions in mainstream settings. Communication tended to be mainly with individual support workers. This was not the case for typically developing students who communicated extensively with their peers throughout the observation periods.

The authors believe further research is needed into training of support staff to facilitate strategies to increase classroom interaction between these two groups of students.

Students with disabilities tended to be largely passive communicators, possibly partly due to a lack of appropriate initiations from their communication partners.

Aided AAC systems were not frequently used in interactions. Sometimes because they were not made available in the classroom, but also due to user preference, despite unaided systems not always providing good quality communication in classrooms.

It is also argued that requesting wants and needs is not the most important communication function for people young people who use AAC and who were found to be using communication initiation to try to develop social closeness. The authors identify that further research is needed into how best to support them in developing these skills.


The authors identify several limitations to their study, including a lack of information about the students’ history in inclusive education the limited number of classes observed and the type of sampling used to gather the information.

They also acknowledge that they did not fully address the complexity of social interactions in their observation schedules.

Things you may want to look into:

Enhancing the Alternative and Augmentative Communication Use of a Child with Autism through a Parent-implemented Naturalistic Intervention

Comparative Efficacy of the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) versus a Speech-Generating Device: Effects on Social-communicative Skills and Speech Development

Disentangling the social threads within a communicative environment: a cacophonous tale of alternative and augmentative communication (AAC)

Social Participation of School-aged Children Who Use Communication Aids: The Views of Children and Parents

Exploring Communication Assistants as an Option for Increasing Communication Access to Communities for People who use Augmentative Communication

Added to site May 2015