Penn State researchers explore the future of augmentative communication

Marjorie S. Miller
November 26, 2014

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Changes in technology continue to have a dramatic impact on the way people connect, including among those with unique communication needs.

This topic is no stranger to researchers at Penn State, who are testing and developing new technologies and supports to advance a field in which there is limited knowledge and information.

Penn State’s Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders (CSD), in collaboration with a variety of other health care organizations and research centers, is leading research, training and dissemination of information to improve outcomes for those who rely on alternative communication.

Earlier this year, the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research awarded a $5 million grant to CSD to enhance communication and improve outcomes for children and adults who rely on augmentative and alternative communication. In collaboration with Oregon Health and Science University, Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital and InvoTek, the grant will be used for a Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Augmentative and Alternative Communication (RERC on AAC). Throughout the next few years, the funds will fuel a variety of research projects both on University Park’s campus and across the country. InvoTek is a research and development company that creates new assistive devices that strengthen independence, communication and interaction for people with severe disabilities.

Led by principal investigator Janice Light, Distinguished Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders, seven of the research and development projects were underway as of Oct. 1.

The grant

The grant, which provides approximately $5 million of funding over a five-year period, consists of four components: research, development, training and dissemination, said Light, who holds the Hintz Family Endowed Chair in Children’s Communicative Competence.

The grant will focus on enhancing communication and improving outcomes for children and adults who rely on augmentative and alternative communication (e.g., signs, communication books, speech generating devices and mobile technologies), including, but not limited to, individuals with autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, traumatic brain injury, stroke and degenerative neurological disorders such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

“We were the only Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center funded on Rehabilitation Strategies, Techniques and Interventions,” Light said. “We are really excited about the research, development, training and dissemination activities that we have planned and the new collaborations that we will be building, both in house at Penn State with the College of Engineering and the College of Information Sciences and Technology, as well as nationwide with other leading research centers. This is an incredible opportunity to advance the field and improve outcomes for children and adults with the most complex communication needs.”

“Our overall mission is to try to enhance communication and improve quality of life,” Light said. “We would argue communication is really the essence of all of our lives and is the key to successful participation in society.”

“There are a lot of stakeholders who will benefit,” Light said. “The grant is all about those who have unique needs, and our goal is to enhance the quality of life for them.”

“The grant will provide a richness of opportunities for Penn State students from various disciplines to conduct research, develop cutting-edge technologies and learn evidence-based practices in rehabilitation,” she said.

Jessica Gosnell Caron, a doctoral candidate in CSD, said the grant and corresponding research is beneficial because it provides students like herself with access to current information in the field as well as a wide range of experiences she can use in her career.

The grant’s collaboration with other health care and research centers, she said, is really exciting.

“As a student, you are getting access to a wealth of information,” she said.

Caron’s research interests include maximizing communication outcomes in individuals with special needs. Some of her experience in that area includes technology development and the use of social media to address barriers to success.

“It’s an incredible opportunity being here and being a part of the RERC,” Caron said. “(It provides) a great example of how to be an investigator, trainer and collaborator, all things we’re learning as doctoral students.”

Partnering with Light, Caron said, has really opened her eyes to what’s involved in this type of work.

By attending research meetings, Caron is able to see how Light moves the research along.

“It’s a great opportunity for me to see how she runs a big research grant,” she said. “It’s really exciting. She’s amazing. What she’s done and how the field has advanced is largely due to her and the research team at Penn State.”

The future

David McNaughton, professor of special education, is leading the training and dissemination activities.

“I have worked in the field of AAC for over 30 years, beginning as a clinician at a children’s rehabilitation center,” he said. “There have always been two important components to an effective AAC intervention: the identification and use of appropriate AAC technology, and providing instruction so the person who uses AAC, and his or her communication partner, know how to use AAC to support communication.”

McNaughton said the grant provides a wealth of opportunities, including long-term support for the leading centers in AAC in the U.S. to work together to develop new technology. It will also develop the information needed to support the effective use of AAC by persons with disabilities.

“Each of the RERC on AAC partners has a different area of expertise, and this provides a wonderful structure for working together to support the communication of people with complex communication needs,” McNaughton said.

There are five training and dissemination activities as part of the grant, McNaughton said. The first, AAC Incubator, involves creating teams of Penn State students to conduct research with persons with disabilities in order to identify unmet technology needs.

“The first research project is up and running,” McNaughton said. “We are working with Godfrey Nazareth, a person with ALS who uses AAC, and Susan Fager, a researcher from Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital, to interview persons with ALS about their perspectives on AAC technology, and ways in which the technology could be improved. Our goal is to identify innovative design features which will then be given to the Learning Factory Teams.”

The Learning Factory projects, done in collaboration with the Penn State College of Engineering’s Learning Factory program, involves developing and testing prototype AAC technologies, McNaughton said.

“Using the ideas generated from the AAC Incubator projects, we will work with undergraduate students in the College of Engineering who will use the technology development activities as their Senior Design/Capstone Engineering experience,” he said.

The third activity is referred to as AAC Webcasts and Massive Open Online Course (MOOC).

“Over the next five years we will develop 12 webcasts on the use of AAC,” McNaughton said. “These will include first person descriptions of the use of AAC by persons with complex communication needs, as well as descriptions of research and development, guidelines for practice, etc. In year four, we will present a MOOC on AAC that will incorporate these materials as well as other activities.”

A Doc Student ThinkTank is the fourth activity, McNaughton said, which aims to support the next generation of AAC research by hosting two summer institutes for graduate students and early career faculty in order to provide support and promote networking in the development of their AAC research careers.

The fifth project, he said, is a State of the Science conference, which will bring together leading researchers in the field of AAC as well as persons who use AAC, AAC clinicians and AAC manufacturers, in order to summarize the state of the science in the AAC field and to identify an agenda for future research and development.

“Our goal is to make it easier for everyone – persons who use AAC, family members, speech language pathologists and educators – to find out about AAC and to learn how to support its effective use,” McNaughton said. “One major barrier to AAC right now is the lack of knowledge of the benefits that it can provide, and the limited information available on how to support its effective use. We now have an outstanding team and a comprehensive plan for increasing awareness and knowledge of AAC.”

For more information about AAC research, development and training activities, visit

For more information about CSD at Penn State visit

  • Janice Light RERC on AAC 2014

    Janice Light, Distinguished Professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders (CSD), is the principal investigator of research and development projects under a grant received by the CSD to enhance communication and improve outcomes for children and adults who rely on augmentative and alternative communication.

    IMAGE: Patrick Mansell/Penn State

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Last Updated March 04, 2016