Autism and AAC: moving beyond object requesting

Many SLPs who’ve spent time working with children with autism who use AAC know that these children often have a particular strength in learning object requests. This communicative function actually represents the bulk of research on AAC and autism to date, as well (as if we need more help with teaching that...)
However, many SLPs get stuck when it’s time to move beyond requesting objects. What should be taught next? How? And what have the outcomes been for teaching the other various communicative functions?
This review article examines the research literature to-date, and identified 30 relevant studies that touch on these questions (that tells you just how little research has been done on this! Yikes!)Here are some highlights of what they found:

  • The communication functions targeted in the studies (other than object requesting) included: requests for action, protests, requests for social routines, greetings, calls, acknowledgments (which was mostly answering wh questions), comments, and requests for information.
  • Across studies, they found that, “all targeted communication functions improved to some extent.”
  • About half of the studies measured generalization, “all demonstrating it to some degree” (doesn’t that just scream publication bias?)

Because of the relatively small number of studies, not a ton can be concluded from this review. The authors suggest building on the strengths of children with autism by capitalizing on what they’re good at (e.g object requesting), but “…directing these towards more socially oriented outcomes (e.g. requests for social games/routines)…”. The authors also suggest that clinicians consider, “…the application of ABA principles in naturalistic contexts…”, which is a common theme among intervention studies published.
Note that one of the most clinically-useful parts of this review is their summary table, where they highlight each of the studies included in the review, and you can quickly scan it to look for samples and methods that match what you're interested in. This is great, because even though the review doesn’t give you explicit strategies for instruction, many of the individual articles will, and this gives you a quick and easy way to identify them.
Logan, K., Iacono, T., & Trembath, D. (2017). A systematic review of research into aided AAC to increase social-communication functions in children with autism spectrum disorder. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 33(1), 51–64.