Skip to main content
Posted on May 18, 2023

Using AAC to talk about how you feel

Many of us realise the importance of talking about our emotions and mental health. This may present unique and individual challenges for anyone with complex communication needs.

Recent research also indicates that the rate of mental health issues is much higher among those with complex communication needs (Watson, Reghavendra, & Crocker, 2021). Why might this be?

Drawing from content presented at AAC and disability conferences worldwide, we outline why conversations about mental health are of great importance for AAC users and various methods through which individuals with complex communication needs can talk about how they feel using Grid AAC software. Additionally, we provide strategies that can aid communication partners in facilitating this process for the service users.

There are several reasons why talking about mental health is of particular importance for AAC users:

1. Communicating emotion in different ways

2. Sensory processing differences

3. Challenges building social connections

4. Negative experiences 


Why it’s especially important for AAC users

 

1. Communicating emotion in different ways

AAC users, especially those who also have other physical and cognitive disabilities, may express emotion differently. Differences in, or the absence of facial expressions, gestures, and vocalisations may make it difficult convey different feelings and for communication partners to accurately identify an emotion. As a result, AAC users may find it difficult to fully express themselves, leading to feelings of frustration, isolation, and anxiety.

Moreover, the inability to accurately communicate emotions can also lead to a lack of emotional support. AAC users may feel that their emotions are not being acknowledged or understood, which can exacerbate feelings of loneliness and lead to mental health issues. Therefore, it is crucial for AAC users to have the opportunity to discuss their mental health and emotions openly, without fear of judgement or misunderstanding. By doing so, they can receive the support and validation they need to maintain positive mental health and well-being.

2. Sensory processing differences

AAC users sometimes process sensory information, such as sight, hearing, and physical sensations in different ways, leading to both hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity. Hypersensitivity can cause overstimulation from loud noises or bright lights, while hyposensitivity can lead to attraction to those same stimuli.

These sensory processing differences can make it challenging for individuals to communicate effectively, engage in meaningful activities, and regulate their emotions. Over time, this can lead to feelings of frustration, isolation, and anxiety, ultimately negatively impacting mental health. For example, overstimulation from sensory input may cause anxiety and emotional dysregulation, leading to mental health challenges.

Therefore, it is crucial for AAC users to address their sensory processing differences and seek support in developing strategies to manage and cope with these challenges,  improving their mental well-being.

3. Challenges building social connections

Isolation is associated with poor mental health and making connections with others can be difficult for AAC users, who may have less opportunity to meet others and communicate in non-typical ways.

It is essential that AAC users have access to communication devices with tools that enable them to build and maintain relationships in various ways beyond face-to-face communication. These tools can include features such as the ability to join online discussions, use social media, send emails, make calls with their device, and help foster connections with others.

However, access to these tools alone is insufficient. AAC users should be supported to effectively utilise these tools. Disabilities can present barriers in accessing and using technology, so it’s crucial to ensure that they receive appropriate training and assistance in navigating these platforms. Adequate access and guidance enable AAC users to broaden social connections and combat isolation, ultimately promoting mental well-being.

4. Negative experiences

Disabled people are more likely to experience abuse, stress, anxiety and ableism which negatively contribute to mental health issues. Limited access to the mental health AAC resources hinders the ability of people with complex communication needs to engage in conversations about challenges faced and overall psychological health.

The absence of mental health vocabulary may also result in under-identification of mental health conditions among AAC users and subsequent deprivation of access to important supports and therapy. This can create a disparity between the care that people with varying communication abilities receive.

 

Talking about mental health and wellbeing in Grid

Grid is full of opportunities to show emotion in different ways. While our text-based vocabularies allow for the user to type exactly what they’re thinking, there are specific areas in our symbol-based vocabularies and other grid sets to talk about mental health and wellbeing, including:

1. Talk about how you feel in Voco Chat

2. Explore feelings with Super Core

3. Symoji to show what you’re feeling

4. Accessible apps for connection and community

 

Note: it’s also important to personalise a grid set so it includes feelings and topics of importance or concern for a particular AAC user.

In Voco Chat

Voco Chat is a low-cell count symbol vocabulary designed specially for speed, efficiency and ease when joining in with conversions. It’s also our first grid set made with adult AAC users at the forefront of our minds. As such, Voco Chat includes a range of content suited to teens and adults, including the opportunity to talk about feelings.

‘I feel’: leads you to a variety of emotions, including a section for ‘I’m not okay’.

‘Something is wrong’: a range of different things a person could currently be experiencing.

In Super Core

Super Core is a symbol-based vocabulary which prioritises communicating with the words we use most commonly giving less precedence to less commonly used words.

‘Feelings → more’: choose from a range of emotions and feelings with qualifiers (e.g. ‘a little bit’, ‘very’).

‘Topics → Mind’: a section of options relating to feeling, including options for ‘mental health’ and ‘well being’.

With Symoji

If a picture is worth 1000 words, then an animation with sound is worth even more. With Symoji, Grid users can illustrate their thoughts and feelings in one click with this feature, similar to emojis that we all use on social media every day, but with a Smartbox twist. Symoji is compatible with the second screen, available with the Grid Pad 10s and as a stand alone accessory, so is great for adding context in real-time during conversation.

These animations are a powerful way to represent emotions often conveyed through body language. They are particularly beneficial for individuals who may not be physically or cognitively able to use body language in ways typically understood by most. Symoji is available in the tool kit sections of all popular symbol or text vocabularies and as a standalone grid set.

Accessible apps

The Grid versions of popular apps including social media, phone and messaging apps let AAC users make connections, near and far. As many of us know, apps can be a door to community, and having accessible versions of these apps will allow users to connect with people like them, or friends old and new. It is essential that AAC users are supported past simply providing the language to talk about mental health, giving them the opportunity to use these social tools. Explore our range of accessible apps in the ‘Doing more’ section.

Support beyond AAC

The importance of modelling

Not to be confused with the modelling you see on the runways in Paris, modelling on an AAC system draws parallels between objects in the environment and their corresponding cell on a given vocabulary. You may observe an emotion around them and guide the AAC user to the most appropriate cell (usually through pointing or pressing). For instance, when witnessing an argument, (discreetly) modeling ‘I think he’s angry’ while pointing to where that feeling is located on their grid set.

Books, films and videos can also serve as tools for modelling emotions. For example, you can identify Dory as ‘sad’ while she is searching for Nemo in Finding Nemo. Media sources can also equip AAC users with the language to express emotions. Often, we see Gestalt Language Processors who learn words in chunks (such as some autistic people), reproduce phrases from films through a phenomenon named Echolalia. However, learning words in this way  is not limited to GLPs, as most people learn a quantity of phrases as gestalts or chunks.

Collaboration with mental health professionals

Additional support can be provided by working with mental health professionals, particularly those who have experience working with AAC users, where appropriate. Such professionals can help with addressing mental health concerns such as anxiety, depression, or behavioural challenges that may impact the AAC users’ mental health. They can also provide strategies and interventions tailored to the individual’s unique communication needs and abilities.


In conclusion, facilitating AAC users’ ability to express their emotions and address their mental health is of utmost importance. The unique challenges they face underpin their need for specialised support and tools.

Grid offers valuable features tailored to help AAC users communicate their feelings effectively. Whether through text-based or symbol-based vocabularies, Symoji, or accessible apps, AAC users can find meaningful ways to convey their emotions.

By promoting open conversations about mental health and emotions, we can create inclusive spaces where AAC users feel understood, supported, and validated.


Reference: Eleanor Watson, Parimala Raghavendra & Ruth Crocker (2021): Mental health matters: a pilot study exploring the experiences and perspectives of individuals with complex communication needs, Augmentative and Alternative Communication


Find out more in our upcoming webinar

Join us in this insightful webinar as we delve into the crucial importance of mental health support in AAC. Gain invaluable insights from an AAC user who brings expertise as a mental health professional.

Register now

Request a quote

Quickly put together what you need and send it over to us.

Request a quote

Mailing list

Join the Smartbox mailing list for regular updates and news.

You can change your mind at any time by clicking the unsubscribe link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or by contacting us at hello@thinksmartbox.com.

We use MailChimp as our marketing email platform. When you join, you acknowledge that the information you provide will be transferred to MailChimp for processing in accordance with their Privacy Policy and Terms.