Understanding different ways to talk

Did you have a chat to someone on your way to work or school this morning? Most of us have no trouble talking to others, and very often we take this for granted. For some children this can be a daily challenge – they will usually need to find other ways of talking to their friends or telling an adult what they think.

As a specialist speech and language therapist at I CAN’s Meath School, it is hugely satisfying to see the smile on a child’s face when they realise that their new way to say ‘hello’ is easily understood, and then watch their enthusiasm as they rush to say things to their friends.

Augmentative and Alternative Communication, or AAC, is one of the ways we give children a voice to use alongside their speech. At Meath School this can range from the use of simple pictures, to signing, to high tech devices.

Oliver, one of our pupils, uses a communication book in the playground which contains pictures of friends and family, as well as their favourite games and activities. It’s lovely to see all his friends and classmates gather around as he proudly shows them the pictures of his family. He can then tell them what games he likes to play with his sister by pointing to the pictures of her and then of a particular game. With pictures of the playground equipment kept in the shed he can quickly ask a friend if they want to play that with him, and when he returns to class he can tell his teacher what he has been doing during break-time.

Children love stories and listening to stories. Emily, another of our pupils, finds it really helpful when we use signs with our hands to tell the story of The Three Billy Goats Gruff at the same time as narrating the story with spoken words. This way she can see how to tell the story in two ways. When she wants to explain parts of the story herself, or answer a question about the story, she can use the signs to help her. This helps her to remember the right words to say it herself.

Other children may use vocabulary that is already entered onto electronic ‘voice output communication aids’ (VOCAs) – such as recorded speech devices or specialist computers. Using these, older children can put together sentences to explain what they know to their class teacher. For instance, in a Science lesson they can explain what ‘transparent’ means, or how pollination happens in plants.

Of course several of the children at Meath who are experienced AAC users use more than one method to communicate – I am so in awe of those children who use a combination of strategies in a single conversation depending on what most readily does the job. They may introduce themselves to a new acquaintance using social information about themselves stored on their VOCA or in their communication book. They then continue the conversation with that person using fluent signs, but if the other person’s signing is limited they can continue to use their devices as well. They will use pictures and objects around them to explain what they may have been learning recently, and then they patiently say all these things in a different way if the first hasn’t been understood.

Chatting and talking is so important to all of us, and helping to give children the skills and means to achieve this is hugely rewarding.

–       Jessie Luckins,  AAC Co-ordinator, I CAN’s Meath School – January 2012

Read an inspiring story of a parent whose child went to Meath school.