Jessie Luckins is the Senior Speech and Language Therapist at I CAN’s Meath School in Surrey. Here she talks about some of the technology we use to assist children with complex SLCN, so they can communicate with confidence.
Communication takes many guises and ranges through facial expression, pointing and gesture to vocalisations and spoken language, encompassing all of these. In addition we can augment these means with other supportive approaches such as signing (at Meath School we use Sign Supported English) and low and high technology, such as pictures, signs and symbols, communication books and high-tech voice output communication aids (VOCA). The VOCA we use at Meath are tablets running specialist software or apps.
Early in their communication development journey, children at Meath who struggle to make themselves understood may use some sounds with a few signs. Crucial communication skills like taking turns, asking for what they would like in snack time or telling their weekend news on a Monday morning are practiced alongside learning signing, practising speech sounds and using a VOCA.
Watching children’s progress and gentle (or dramatic!) blossoming can be humbling. Many children with speech that is hard to understand come into school with limited means of expression and have low confidence, being reluctant to answer questions or join in with class/group discussions. As they develop different aspects of their ‘communication toolkit’ their confidence increases so that they can answer questions and volunteer information and opinions in class and beyond, and share their experiences and feelings. They also gradually develop the confidence and awareness to use different means of communication in different settings – using their improved speech in familiar places like school where we know their speech well, but using their VOCA when talking with people who know them less well or don’t sign.
One of our children with poor speech and language was having problems at home, showing difficult behaviour; it appeared that in a busy household with lots of brothers and sisters she was frustrated because she couldn’t join in and share activities. She has a VOCA (or ‘talker’) to support her communication – VOCAs contain grids made up of ‘cells’ each containing a symbol or picture (with a word alongside), when you press or touch a cell the word it displays is spoken aloud. Children can choose words on the grid to put together a sentence, then press play on the VOCA to speak their utterance.
This child’s speech and language therapist made some specific grids to support activities which the child enjoyed and could play at home with her sisters, such as games and jig-saws. The favourite turned out to be the grid for ‘cafe pretend play’ – with vocabulary for both customer and waitress/waiter roles: so that the child could say for instance: ‘I…want…an apple…please’ and ‘What… do you want… to drink’. She also had a grid to help her to express emotions and say if she was happy, tired, cross. These activities, enabled by the VOCA were a great success, the child and her sisters had fun playing together and her behaviour at home improved. Her Mum was pleased and reported: “She was using her talker lots this weekend”, and “The girls had so much fun playing role play in the cafe with the talker, I was so impressed how well it went”
Another student has developed his speech and signing, but also uses a VOCA to enable him to make understandable sentences that are longer and more complex than he can produce using his speech or signs. He can use this means to communicate in various settings, and talk about himself and what is important to him, at school and at home. His parents were very happy and described how, using the VOCA, he can now “add in the details of his life”, and that he is “so much happier and more confident”.