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Communication for children with additional needs

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Lack of communication is a major challenge. Everyone communicates. It may not always be easy to see, understand or respond to quickly, but it is there. The form it takes may vary.

The most important starting point in communicating is to list what your child can do, what they like and don’t like, and how you know this. It is very easy to make a long list of things a person can’t do – can’t play the piano, speak Spanish, fill in their tax returns, eat oysters and ride a unicycle. This does not mean you know the person. It is looking at what a person can do that we identify a starting point to work from.

Can you think of four things your child loves and four things they do not like? You know this because your child is communicating. So your child does communicate. Sometimes the starting points for developing communication skills may be hard to find, but they are there.

Sometimes the challenge might come later when lots of skills are developed and then something prevents further progress. A diagnosis or label might be given early on that makes you worry about the future. This label may later be dismissed as not being relevant any more. The whole situation can be confusing and alarming.

If a child cannot influence the world around them or make things happen, this can sometimes result in them turning to themselves for stimulation (for example, by rocking or hitting or biting themselves). It is important for children at the earliest stages of communication to experience cause and effect and to make choices. Your child’s Teacher of the Deaf, special education teacher or speech pathologist should be able to give you advice and ideas to try.

It is important that your child knows what is happening or is about to happen. You can use objects, symbols and pictures with signs or speech to help involve your child in what is going on. By setting a clear pattern of what is going to happen each day, your child will have the chance to develop an understanding of a pattern rather than things simply happening to him or her.

The system you use does not matter, as long as it is effective and used by your child and all those in regular contact with him or her. Using one system such as speech should not rule out using another such as sign, pictures and objects. Most parents will use speech and support this by using cues that help. A child may choose an object to let you know they are hungry or want to play, may sign an important word and use pictures to support their meaning or use their voice with symbols.

The really important thing is to have a system of communication that you and all the other people who are with your child regularly, agree with, use and understand.

The important points are that any system you use should:

  • be used at home and school
  • be easy to use
  • be used by all the family, carers, professionals and those in regular contact with your child; and
  • allow your child to express themselves and join in with the family and with school activities.

Communication may be through any one, or a mixture of, the following.

  • Speech
    This may be English, Arabic, Greek, Vietnamese or any other spoken language
  • Sign language
    Australian Sign Language (Auslan) is a unique language unrelated to spoken English.
  • Signed system
    There is a range of signing systems that have been developed to help improve communication with people with disabilities. These are based on the structure of Spoken English and may borrow some signs from Auslan (such as Signed English and Makaton)
  • Object symbols
    It isn’t always possible to have the real thing close to hand, so objects can be used to stand for something else (for example, a spoon might mean ‘dinner time’, a key on a chain might mean going in the car, a sponge might mean bath time.)

Further information and support

  • AGOSCI is a group representing people with complex communication needs, as well as those who live, know or work with people with complex communication needs. One of their key areas of interest is in Augmentative and Alternative Communication. They have an online community for families with children with complex communication needs.
  • Auslan Signbank
  • Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) | Novita Children’s Services

Information supplied by the National Deaf Children’s Society. Reproduced with permission.
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