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Building Tiered Supports
for Complex Communicators

On this page, learn more about the Open Access training and coaching model designed to meet the needs of regions to build supports and improve outcomes for students with complex communication needs.

7 Key Beliefs About AAC

The Open Access team has created these shared beliefs about AAC that drive good team-based decision making. The following key beliefs are emphasized as part of setting this foundation for teams.


Communication has NO prerequisites.

Communication begins at birth! AAC intervention begins as soon as the need is recognized. Some children may still need to be taught skills and strategies in order to be successful, and this may be a long journey. But we need to put supports in place while we build those skills.


Vocalizations and speech should always be encouraged.

It is common for families to fear that introducing AAC means we are giving up on speech. Many individuals with severe speech impairment do have SOME core vocabulary that is communicated verbally, even if hard to understand. Honor It! Don’t ignore attempts! Introducing AAC usually results in increases in speech production.


AAC should be incorporated into an individual’s already existing multimodal system.

Technology is never the only answer...vocalizations, gestures, signs, facial expression, picture displays can very effectively augment communication. It is far better to roll your eyes than to type out “that’s ridiculous!” on a communication display.


Choice making is the foundational skill upon which we build communication competence.

Choice making from an early age creates a foundation for critical thinking, increased problem solving abilities, and helps to increase independence. A child’s ability to make choices increases their communication options, allows them to control their environment, increases engagement and improves behavior. Present as many choice options as they can handle.


Visual displays (or supports) serve a broad purpose.

Visual displays and communication boards are not just PECS. For students who need PECS in order to develop some foundational skills (e.g. regarding partners, discriminating pictures, initiating communication), it is important to know when to transition from PECS to a more robust system. Visuals also enhance comprehension and improve task completion. They are “static and unmoving” and can enable a learner to rely on recognition, rather than memory to understand and use language.


We want students to communicate for more than just requesting wants/needs from the earliest stages possible.

There are many reasons why we communicate...these are referred to as the “functions” of communication. Sometimes we get stuck on requesting (which is a great place to start), but that’s a pretty limited place to be! Students need many opportunities to experience language for a variety of purposes.


Teaming is essential and the success of any AAC communicator is dependent on the skills of partners.

AAC will not succeed without a strong partnership amongst all team members. AAC is also a shared responsibility among team members. The context for learning communication is all day, everyday, with all partners. We also need to understand what we are asking of families, what their needs and challenges as well as priorities are as we plan for implementation.

A tiered approach has been implemented in order to address building capacity within Placer County districts and school sites. This has been replicated with SELPAs participating in Open Access capacity building projects. The following is an overview of what happens at each tier of the model:

Tier 1 AAC Foundations

For Special Education Teachers, OTs, PTs, Behaviorists, School Psychologists, Paraeducators, SLPs and SLPAs

Four, 3-hour sessions.

  • Making a case for AAC

  • Key Beliefs that support our goal for students with complex communication needs

  • Multimodal Communication

  • What is an AAC system? 

  • AAC Communicator Profiles

  • Building learners

  • Universal support for developing the foundations of language

  • Supporting communication needs in our curricular activities

  • AAC collaborative teaming supports

Tier 2 AAC Implementer

For site-based Speech-Language Pathologists who have successfully completed AAC Foundations and have access to students on their caseload who can benefit from AAC

Eight, 3-hour sessions with individual coaching check ins between sessions

  • Overview of the AAC Needs Assessment process

  • Phase 1 - Current communication data gathering

  • Summarizing and Interpreting data

  • Phase 2 - Observation & data collection of student’s current skills (related to using aided communication tools)

  • Summarizing assessment results and making recommendations

  • Building a plan for implementation

  • Special populations and supporting implementation across a collaborative team

  • Moving forward as effective AAC implementers

  • Complete, with fidelity, two AAC Needs Assessments and one Communication Access Plan. 

Tier 3 AAC Specialist

For Licensed Speech-Language Pathologists who have successfully completed AAC Implementer certification and are nominated by their district or SELPA to train and coach and support site-based SLPs with assessment and funding for students with more complex profiles.

2-Day AAC Advanced Summer Institute; additional virtual training sessions (24 hours of additional training)

  • The perspective of AAC users

  • Alternative access, seating and mobility

  • Effective coaching practices

  • Capacity building in your region

  • Funding of speech generating devices

  • Addressing complex cognitive needs

  • Addressing complex visual needs

  • Literacy and vocabulary considerations

  • Complete, with fidelity, one AAC Needs Assessment for a student with complex access needs. Complete and submit one AAC funding request to an outside (medical) source of funding. 

Click here for a more detailed scope and sequence for each training sequence:
AAC Foundations  |  AAC Implementation  |  AAC Specialization

For a more detailed crosswalk between the two levels of certification available to speech-language pathologists, download this crosswalk:

AAC Certifications crosswalk PDF download
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