Communication on tour!

When I started working as a Speech and Language Therapist, I was based in a clinic- One small room, with one large, bright window. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not complaining- some Speech Therapists don’t even have a window…!

Even on wet, drizzly days (which was the norm, as I was working in Northern Ireland!), I used to glance out the window between appointments and think, “That’s where all the proper communication is happening- beyond that window!”

When I started working in schools, I could stretch my legs a bit more- joining students in the occasional cookery lesson, making use of the sensory room, sometimes even venturing outside with the children into the playground…it felt like a little taste of freedom!

So when some of my forward-thinking colleagues invited me to join them on trips beyond the confines of the school gate to support some of our students using alternative forms of communication, it didn’t take me long to grab my coat and a selection of core symbols!

This has now become a bit of a regular part of my job; something I refer to as ‘Communication in the Community’. Catchy, right?!

I see it as having 3 main functions:

  1. Real life communication experience- Many of the students who I work with are quite confident using their alternative forms of communication in the school environment. They don’t feel different or that they ‘stand out’ – In their class they have plenty of other friends using communication books, iPads, switches or eye-gaze devices to communicate.

Similarly, in their home-environment, they have support from their family who understand their communication system.

Once we venture out beyond the safe zones of school and home, there is the daunting prospect of communicating with people who have never interacted with anyone who  uses something other than their voice to communicate. This can make some of our children a little nervous, a little withdrawn or sometimes frustrated. By easing them in to the idea of communicating beyond their comfort zone, with a little bit of extra support, we can help to bridge that gap and boost their confidence.

  1. Motivation!! The best communication happens when our students are highly motivated! And let’s face it, sometimes it’s difficult to think of new, innovative ways to encourage our children to initiate communication, carry on a conversation, ask a question or make a comment.

But once you take them to a popular bargain store (naming no names…!), and they have a few pounds to spend, watch that student become incredibly motivated to let you know what they want! Or maybe it’s a trip to a cafe and they see a delicious chocolate fudge cake perched temptingly on the counter…Or perhaps it’s the local Pet Shop and you know they desperately want to pet that Guinea Pig..!

Every student is enthused by something different but once you find that motivation, those communication targets seem well within reach!

  1. Educating others- This ties in with my first point. It is so important for the wider world to understand that people communicate in different ways. We rarely see people using communication aids on TV or in the mainstream media (with the exception of the fantastic Stephen Hawking!).

What I find is that the general public are often very intrigued by the resources and technology that our students are using on our trips into the community. On a trip to the supermarket, a lady approached the young girl who I was working with and said, “Wow, what a great idea- having a little TV on her wheelchair!” I was then able to explain that actually, this was a communication aid, and my superstar communicator was able to demonstrate by introducing herself!


So if you think this sounds like an interesting idea and you fancy taking your communication session on a day trip, here are a few essential things that you may need to pack:

  • Core symbols- Core symbols consist of words that we use again and again across multiple activities. Even if your student is using a high-tech communication aid, I think ‘no-tech’ back-ups are essential. Sometimes technology lets us down or we need to take a step back if our student is working on new vocabulary.

I tend to wear core symbols on a lanyard around my neck or carry them in a small zippy wallet. The symbols that I tend to carry most often include:- ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘more’, ‘stop’, ‘want’, ‘help’,’ like’, ‘don’t like’ and ‘something different’.

In an activity such as feeding the ducks at the park, the child can use these symbols to indicate that they 1) ‘want’ to feed the ducks, 2) that they want some ‘more’ bread but that they need ‘help’ to throw it in the pond, 3) that they ‘like’ the ducks and then finally, 4) that they want to ‘stop’ and do ‘something different’.

  • Custom-made communication boards- Our students’ communication books can help them to talk about most things that they want to, but if you are going somewhere new, you might need some specific vocabulary. It’s easy to quickly rustle up a communication board on software such as Boardmaker or Matrix Maker.

For example, I took some of my students to the Fire Station a few months ago and I made the communication board below not only for the students to use but also for me to model new vocabulary to them. As you can imagine they loved telling me to put on the helmet…!

  • A switch- If your student isn’t using a high-tech communication aid, they may want a way to greet others or to initiate communication. Something like a Big Mack Switch or a Talking Tin Lid is the perfect way to do this.                            Some of the children who accompany me on trips, like to use their communication book to tell me what they want at the cafe but then prefer me to then record their order on to a switch- That way, they can order their own food using the switch, without trying to reach the impossibly high counter with their communication book!

Another fun way that I’ve recently used a switch, was on a trip to the toy shop- I recorded, “I want to look at that toy!” on one girl’s switch and as we walked up and down the aisles of the store, she took great delight in pressing her switch to let me know when she’d seen something she wanted to have a closer look at!


If you are a Speech and Language Therapist and you like the idea of a change of scenery, give it a go! Take communication on tour! The students will love it and I’m pretty sure you’ll be ticking off targets with every trip out!


* With thanks to the team at Highfurlong School for always supporting new and innovative ways to promote communication!


The wonder of kids’ TV

I’d forgive you for reading the title of this post and thinking you’ve stumbled on to the wrong blog. A Speech and Language Therapist hailing kids’ TV as a ‘wonder’?!  Maybe she’s being sarcastic…?

Kids’ TV has been scrutinised and debated for as long as I can remember- From disapproving experts berating the Teletubbies for having their own special language to, back in my day (How old does THAT phrase make me sound?!), when programmes like Power Rangers and Ninja Turtles were criticized for being too violent…only to make a comeback a decade or two later.

It’s important to have these debates. We know that children under 5 have this incredible brain plasticity, quickly forming neural pathways as a result of everyday experiences. This is both amazing and frightening for parents, educators and health professionals, knowing that what our children are exposed to plays a role in moulding their ideas, attitudes and to a certain degree, their personalities.  Quite a responsibility…!

Recently, I saw an article on a Facebook page about Sesame Street introducing a new character. This caught my attention as when I was a child, I loved Sesame Street…In fact, I probably watched it until I was way past their target age demographic! Let’s face it; a picture of Elmo is ‘click-bait’ for most of us… But this article was both touching and surprising.

The writers of Sesame Street have created Julia- a character who has Autism. Julia has made friends with Big Bird and the gang but she exhibits traits of Autism that we often see in young girls- In her opening scene, we see her so engrossed in her colouring-in that she doesn’t respond to questions and comments from the others. She struggles with social skills, like greetings and initiating communication and is echolalic (repeating words and phrases that others around her have used).

But what is much more important than Julia’s difficulties is the fact that she still wants to play and interact in her own way with those around her…And the other characters accept this, integrating her into their games, adapting them to include her preferences.

Sesame Street has always been known for its catchy songs to help children learn the alphabet, numbers and shapes- But how much more important is it to educate our children to accept others, to be tolerant and caring individuals? And how brilliant for our children who have speech, language or communication difficulties, to finally see characters on TV who they can relate to?

Of course, Sesame Street is not the first kids’ TV show to make this connection. Mr Tumble has pretty much single-handedly made Makaton signing mainstream since his show ‘Something Special’ first aired in 2003. Suddenly, children with communication difficulties were no longer this minority group that no one talked about- They were signing, playing and having fun, demonstrating to everyone that people can communicate in different ways.

However, I’m under no illusion that all children’s television is some beautiful beacon of inclusivity. While writing this post, I stumbled on an article in The Guardian, dated July 2015 with the headline, ‘Children’s TV pretends disability doesn’t exist’. It specifically hones in on kids’ channels such as Nickelodeon and Disney and how their programmes fail to include and embrace children with disabilities.

One child in every twenty in the UK has a disability. Many of these children may have ‘invisible disabilities’ including speech, language and communication needs. It’s not that we need TV programmes to be the prime source of information on disability for our children- it’s that we need real life to be represented and for our children to have role models in the media who aren’t all carbon copies of each other.  We want our children to feel fairly represented in the programmes that they watch and for parents to use topics raised in children’s TV programmes as conversation starters to help children to better understand themselves and others.

I am heartened that programmes such as Sesame Street see the importance of this. I’m hopeful that other children’s TV programmes will follow suit. ..And in the meantime, as parents, educators and health professionals, that we continue to help our children to understand that uniqueness is something to be celebrated and not something to be scared of. If TV programmes can help us in broaching these tricky conversations, then let’s use them as a springboard!

If you want to start by checking out Julia’s first day down on Sesame Street, have a look at this link: