The Bridge School
Communicative Competence

Communicator Profiles

Individuals who rely on AAC demonstrate a wide range of expressive communication abilities, and often have varying amounts of experience with AAC interventions. Patricia Dowden (1999) described three communicator profiles of individuals with complex communication needs based solely on observable expressive communication behaviors, rather than on receptive language. This framework enables inter-professional teams to set goals and plan interventions. It offers guidance in developing instructional strategies for functional communicator profiles: Emergent, Context-dependent, and Independent.

Emergent Communicators

Emergent communicators use facial expressions, body language, gestures, vocalizations, and other non-symbolic modes of communication, which may be idiosyncratic and not immediately apparent to unfamiliar partners. At this level, any use of intelligible speech, symbols, or signs is limited and often used inappropriately. These individuals communicate primarily about the "here and now," unless with a highly familiar partner who has shared experiences or is able to guess their intent. Interventions for emerging communicators focus on establishing more reliable communication behaviors, moving towards symbolic expression, and increasing opportunities for interactions with more partners about a broader range of topics.

Context-Dependent Communicators

Context-dependent communicators use reliable symbolic communication modes, but communication may still be limited to certain partners, topics, or contexts. These limitations may occur because the individual's speech is unintelligible or because the communication strategies they use are so unique that interactions must be facilitated by a familiar partner. Context-dependent communicators may lack experience with appropriate AAC interventions, lack access to sufficient vocabulary, or lack conventional literacy skills. These factors means the individual is dependent upon others to select and program words and messages for them. Interventions for context-dependent communicators focus on increasing access to vocabulary, building literacy skills, and broadening the person's ability to communicate with multiple of communication partners and across contexts. Additionally, intervention can focus on integrating all available communication modes into a repertoire of effective communication strategies.

Independent Communicators

Independent communicators interact with familiar and unfamiliar partners, about any topic or context. Independent communicators are literate and able to generate completely novel messages, rather than rely on pre-programmed messages. They may be adept at using a variety of communication modes and strategies appropriately in different contexts and with different partners. Intervention goals for independent communicators focus on rate enhancement strategies, gaining more operational competencies and refining access to new technologies and communication formats (email, social media, etc.).


Dowden, P.A. (1999). Different Strokes for Different Folks. Augmentative Communication News, vol 12, pp7-8.

Augmentative Communication News, vol 12 [PDF, 1.1MB]

Dowden, P. A. (1999b). Augmentative and alternative communication for children with motor speech disorders. In A. Caruso and E. Strands, Clinical Management of Motor Speech Disorders. New York: Thieme Medical Publishers, Inc.

Dowden, P.A., & Cook, A. (2002). Choosing effective selection techniques for beginning communicators. In J. Reichle, Beukelman, D., Light, J., Implementing an augmentative communication system: exemplary strategies for beginning communicators. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Blackstone, S. & Hunt Berg, M. (2012). Social Networks: A Communication Inventory for Individuals with Complex Communication Needs and their Communication Partners. Attainment Company.