AAC Core Words: Non-Verbal Autism

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AAC Core Vocabulary Words

What is core vocabulary?

Core vocabulary can be described as:

A set of the most frequently used words in communication- words used over and over with flexibility in a variety of settings and conversations.

Yup. That’s kind of it in a nutshell. ☝️

And turns out the most frequently used words are typically pronouns, verbs, adjectives, prepositions and the like. 🤔

NOT the typical words you see on most picture icons. 👈

That’s because, chances are, you are familiar with icons representing the other type of vocabulary: fringe Vocabulary.

In comparison to core vocabulary, fringe words only make up about 20-25% of what we say. 🤯

These words are largely nouns and are specific to a person, a topic, or a setting.

For instance, the word “spatula” is a fringe word.

It is a noun and is very specific to the kitchen setting.

It doesn’t have flexible usage in a variety of conversations.

Consider the following conversation that could take place in the kitchen:

Mom: "What do you need?"

Child: "I need to turn it."

Mom holds up two options.

Mom: "Do you want a fork or a spatula?"

Child: "I want that one." (pointing)

There are 21 words in this conversation. 19 of the words are core words (what, do, need, I, turn, that . . . ).

The other 2 are fringe words (fork, spatula).

The child was able to communicate with 100% core vocabulary.

Instead of using the specific noun “spatula,” he was able to use other words that will come in useful in a variety of future conversations: “need to,” “turn it,” “that one.”

Picture a traditional fringe icon for “cookie.” 🍪

A student can present this icon to request a cookie. 🍪 That’s about it (give or take some creativity).

Now picture icons for core words such as “like” “don’t” “eat,” “want,” and “more.”

Now THESE words can really take you the distance. 🙌

Roughly 80% of What We Say Consists of Just 300 Words. 

When you teach your students CORE vocabulary, you're giving them so much more than just a few words.  

You're giving them the words they need to start a conversation, to comment to a friend, or to ask for something they want, or interject into a conversation.

Simply put, you're giving them the words they need to communicate.

We are passionate about communication for all. In the special education world we, collectively as parents or professionals, are great at recognizing communication that comes in all different forms: Verbal speech, gestures, vocalizations, body language, echolalia, sign language, or use of visual symbols.

Having a voice is crucial to every living being. When a person doesn’t have verbal speech, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have a voice. They still have wants, needs, opinions, feelings, thoughts and complaints that need to be heard. Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) paired with the use of core vocabulary words is one important way that we help to give our children and students a voice.

Using a set of the most commonly used words in language (across languages and cultures!) gives ALL of our students a robust experience with language--- regardless of communication skills. Core vocabulary words allow us to engage in real-time, meaningful communication regardless of where we are or who we are with.  

At AdaptEd, our AAC core vocabulary materials are focused on ease of use and enjoyment for both the communication facilitator and the student or child. Individual materials focus on a target core vocabulary word or phrase. Students gain exposure and practice with the word(s) through fun, specific activities that are built to engage them. Communication should be useful. It also helps if it’s fun ;) AdaptEd offers a variety of core vocabulary AAC materials including Core Vocabulary adaptations of  Fairytales and Nursery Rhymescore vocabulary task bins, and formulated packets to introduce a variety of new words and phrases.

We believe in play. We believe in big laughs. We believe in modeling the heck out of AAC. We believe in gains both large and small.

Teletherapy Lesson Plans 

I have a lot of students with special needs and it is hard to find materials that work for them.

There are some great resources out there, but most of the time they aren't engaging enough or don't address my specific students' needs.

AdaptEd 4 Special Ed provides you with lesson plans that will engage your students while also addressing their individual learning styles and communication preferences.

These lessons are designed by an experienced SLP who has worked in public schools as well as private practice settings. She knows what works and what doesn't! Each month you'll get four new lessons created just for your classroom or therapy setting.

They can be used with AAC devices, on smartboards, or even printed off so you can use them without technology at all if needed!

We know how hard it is to find a quality, engaging lesson plan that will keep your students engaged.

That’s why we created AAC Weekly Lesson Plans.

Our lessons are designed by teachers and speech-language pathologists who have years of experience working with children on the autism spectrum.

And they come with a low-pressure game or activity to help introduce the target core word! You can also get access to our new animated e-book series for only $9.97/month.

Each book page (a minimum of 10 pages per book) has a moving component to grab attention and keep students engaged. Plus, there's an introductory game included in every lesson plan so you don't need any other materials!

Click here right now to learn more about the $1 trial! You'll be able to try out all these amazing features before deciding if you want them as part of your curriculum each week!

Sign up for AAC Weekly Lesson Plans today and start teaching tomorrow morning with some fresh ideas from us!

What Does CORE Mean for Our Students?

As an SLP (or educational professional in general) there are always opportunities to learn new things- always a plethora of new ideas and concepts waiting to be explored. This can be exciting and refreshing, but it can also be overwhelming at times.

For me, core vocabulary started out as one of those overwhelming things.

I had heard about it here and there and I was genuinely interested, but at that time it only existed as a buzzword on the periphery of my daily work.

Looking back it seems that there was a clear path that I needed to travel in order to get to where I am now- a place of involvement, motivation and hope.

For me, there have been three key parts of this journey:

1) The realization

2) The knowledge 

3) The liftoff

With any luck, hearing about this journey can help you navigate your own journey and, MOST IMPORTANTLY, take core vocabulary out of the periphery and bring it into focus.

How to Implement CORE Vocabulary

Rolling out a core vocabulary program bridges the gap between “interesting” and “practical.” Each day is a test drive, but one that is backed by knowledge and inspiration.

If you are lucky then you have colleagues who have been going on this exploration of core vocabulary with you (I was lucky!)

But, regardless of whether or not you start as a team or as a solo act, the first stage in the “liftoff” is spreading the word.

For me, as an SLP, this meant that I needed to reach a variety of people.

I needed to reach out to administrators, to other SLPs, and to special education teachers. I took what I had learned about core vocabulary and organized it.

It seemed to make sense that all of the information that had motivated me would motivate others as well.

This, in a surprisingly short period of time, turned into what looked like a suitable presentation on the topic.

I started slowly.

I had some laidback talks with a program coordinator about what I had learned and why it could be so beneficial to our special education program.

The more I talked about the knowledge I had acquired, the deeper rooted it became. 

I knew once people had a glimpse, that core vocabulary would appeal to them- at least to some of them initially. This is where a team can start to form.

If you spark an interest then people will come to you for more (which is pretty handy when you are ready to move on from that solo act)!

Getting Going with Core Vocabulary Visuals:

 There’s nothing better than a good visual cue to keep people on target.  

And that isn’t just true for students- it’s true for professionals too.

A classroom that makes core vocabulary a living piece of the scenery is more likely to be successful in helping students to communicate.  

Here are three ideas to help create core vocabulary visuals that will serve a purpose:

Functional Labeling:

It isn’t uncommon to walk into a classroom and see labeling: the word “computer” written above the computer station or the word “door” on (take a guess!) . . . the door.  

This is meant to help increase a child’s vocabulary. But how functional are these labels? The answer is . . . they aren’t.  

There’s not a whole lot a student can communicate by identifying or using the word computer.  

But labeling isn’t a complete wash! Let’s consider what we could do if we just changed the way that we are labeling and decided to use our good friend Core Vocabulary.  

So computer isn’t a core word, but consider what kinds of functional core words could be placed above the computer area instead: “turn on,” “turn off,” “want this.”

What about the sink area? Try “get clean” or “turn on.”

We can even label something as simple as a chair: “sit down.” One of the most obvious and influential places to label is the classroom door.  

You can choose to label simply: “go.” Or maybe you could expand your student's options by including some visuals of where the students might be headed.  

Now they can indicate “go eat,” “go bathroom,” “go walk,” “go sensory room.” Another option is to include some social language labeling.

The door could say “Come in” or even prompt “How are you?”  

The world opens up with a few functional labels. Consider the following labels and where you might place them in your own classroom:  

  • “I want”
  • “Read”
  • “Want help”
  • “Work”
  • “Play”
  • “My turn”
  • “Your turn”
  • “Hot”
  • “Cold”
  • “Get that”
  • “Eat this”


Core Vocabulary Throughout the Day


One concept can either make or break you when it comes to implementing core vocabulary: how often you use it.

You can have the best intentions.

You can come up with the coolest activities to engage your students. You can have an amazingly success session.  

All of these things are buildings blocks to a great foundation in core vocabulary.  

But the puzzle piece that glues everything together is time. Core vocabulary can only be truly successful when it is used consistently throughout the day.

For honesty’s sake, let’s just say that everybody experiences challenges and AdaptEd is no stranger to this.  

Early in the game it is easy to get lost in the excitement of trying something new and to lose track of the big idea in the process.  

For us, the cycle looked a little like this:  

1. Think of an amazing core vocabulary lesson or project that we can’t wait to try

2. Implement our lesson

3. Revel in the lesson’s success (Yay! The students had fun using core vocabulary!)

4. Revisit the lesson at the next session only to discover that the students had not maintained or carried-over any progress

5. Start the cycle over again.  

It took months for us to break the cycle.  

We were working hard and seeing success within each individual activity, but we weren’t using core vocabulary throughout the school day to ensure that the students had enough exposure and practice. 

Lesson learned! 

So what does core vocabulary look like for us now?

It doesn’t matter the activity or the subject- core vocabulary is the mode of communication. We have found core vocabulary a really useful addition to functional math time. 

Words like “get, some, more, all” are a huge part of math in general, but they become so important to our students who are working on math in the community through purchasing items and keeping track of money.

Every subject can be “cored out,” but the down-time in between subjects is a perfect time for core vocabulary too. 

Practice using your vocabulary during social moments to make comments (“I like that”).

Try using core vocabulary to comment on how students are doing while they work or to encourage them (“Good work!”).  

Try using core vocabulary to give directions to your students (“Sit down”). The more ways you use core vocabulary the more ways your students will be able to use it.

The bottom line?  The big take-away?

Make sure that all of your students’ time is useful time.

 Learn from our early mistakes and recognize that core vocabulary isn’t for a single activity or for “therapy time,” but for everyday life.

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