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A Journey to Autonomy

Much like any child learning to communicate, learning to use AAC to effectively communicate is a journey, not a destination.  Children who use AAC are joined on this journey by supportive partners who are engaged in the process and dedicated to learning alongside the child.  These AAC Guides include family members, therapists, teachers, and friends.  A child's AAC journey involves lots of practice using new skills and strengthening existing skills.  AAC tools and strategies are adjusted along the way as the child's needs and skills change.  With appropriate and supportive therapy and education programs that presume competence, model language, and foster literacy skills, children who use AAC can achieve their full potentials and lead productive and fulfilling lives as Conquerors through powerful, independent communication.

The AAC Journey Framework is based on the work of Dr. Patricia Dowden at the University of Washington, the founder of the Continuum of Communication Independence.  In this AAC Path Page, you will learn how an understanding of where a person is right now with his or her expressive communication skills provides a valuable foundation upon which to take the first and next steps  in communication assessment and intervention with AAC tools and strategies. 

A Map for Your Journey

The cci

A framework that outlines a progression of communication independence, developed by Dr. Patricia Dowden

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Adapted from the CCI and focused on the AAC journey experienced by children with developmental differences.   

AAC Journey Framework

The AAC Journey Framework


Continuum of Communication Independence

Dr. Patricia Dowden’s continuum describes an individual's expressive communication based on observable communication behaviors. The model was developed to be used in intervention planning for communicators using AAC tools and strategies or those who may benefit from such tools and strategies.  The continuum holds in mind both those who have lost language due to injury and those who are developing language.  The broad  communication intervention goal when using this continuum, therefore, is to support a communicator’s achievement of communication independence.   Dr. Dowden’s continuum includes three categories:  Emerging Communication, Context-Dependent Communication, and Independent Communication.  The continuum describes the limitations and skills present in each category, progressing the communicator toward independence with language and literacy.  


Dr. Dowden captures the sentiment of this quote in more tangible, and actionable terms in her definition of communication independence-

"the ability to communicate anything on any topic to anyone"

In this definition, It doesn't matter whether or not the individual relies on a communication aid or device, as long as he or she can communicate anything to anyone he/she chooses.


Since most of us able-bodied speakers take this for granted, it might be easiest to understand independence by seeing its absence in some cases.

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  • Spoken language can only be understood by some people, or...

  • other people have to program all vocabulary in a device, or...

  • A communicator  cannot spell well enough to compose novel messages

  • She is given no opportunity to communicate what she wants to say, or...

  • his communication system doesn't match his motor skills making it difficult to control, or...

  • her communication system doesn't match her communication needs, or...

  • there are partners who influence communication through cueing, or...

  • he has hidden vision impairments making it hard to see the symbols, or...

  • she has a hidden hearing impairment making it difficult to hear what is said, or...

  • he has been given insufficient training and time to learn to use his AAC system, or...

  • she has no access to a communication system at times, or...

  • he cannot see the display on his system in some light conditions, or...

  • no one believes she has anything worth listening to....etc.

These are all ways that someone is held back from independence. You should notice that these are all limitations that can be addressed and changed as long as we get to know the communicator.  This the foundation of Dr. Dowden's CCI model, of how we can help make someone truly communicatively independent.


Communicators who are developing language and communication skills with the support of AAC tools and strategies cannot achieve independence with communication unless they become competence in several skill areas.  Researchers in the field of AAC have outlined the domains of linguistic, operational, social, and strategic competence as essential areas for skills growth that must be addressed in sound AAC intervention and support (Light, 1989).



Dowden, Patricia. “Continuum of Communication Independence.” UW Augcomm Home Page, University of Washington, Sept. 2004,

Light, Janice (1989) Toward a definition of communicative competence for individuals using augmentative and alternative communication systems, Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 5:2, 137-144, DOI: 10.1080/07434618912331275126

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