A sprinkle of ‘Pepper’- How to be an effective communication partner

We’ve all been there- that moment when a friend or colleague introduces you to someone new at a party or a work function.

You greet each other and then your friend gradually steps away…

And that’s when you realise that this conversation is not going to ‘flow’.

You struggle to find common ground. That horrible, awkward feeling starts to infiltrate the atmosphere. Speaking is so effortful that you frantically concoct a reason to excuse yourself…


I think of this feeling when I consider how some of the children who I work with must feel, especially when they are learning to use a communication aid.

They know that some people ‘get it’ and will help them to feel relaxed, making it easier for them to communicate. But others? Well, it’s like the party analogy; communication breaks down and everything just feels uncomfortable.

We want to strike the right balance-  supporting our children in learning to use their new communication system but also ensuring that they feel motivated to communicate. And that can be tricky…!

I came up with an acronym to remind myself of some tips on being a better communication partner…It just so happens to spell the word ‘Pepper’ (SaLT and Pepper, anyone…?!)

So here’s how we can sprinkle some pepper on our conversations:

Presume Competence-

This little phrase comes up again and again in AAC literature. It goes without saying- just because someone is non-verbal it doesn’t mean that they don’t have anything to say! Our children using communication aids can become very competent communicators with the right support.

We need to set achievable targets and when they meet those, then challenge them a little bit more! Presume that our children can always initiate more, tell us more, begin to use more vocabulary, etc…Let’s give them the opportunity to show us their full potential in a supportive, communication-rich environment!

Eye Contact-

People who use communication aids often take a bit more time to formulate their message. The temptation is to look away during an uncomfortable silence.

But we need to demonstrate to our children that we are interested in what they are saying; that we are listening.

In any interaction, we do this by making appropriate eye-contact.

This shouldn’t obviously be an intense ‘under-pressure’ stare (!)- the goal is to let the speaker know that we value what they are saying and that we respect them as a communication partner.


Sometimes It can be tricky for someone using a communication aid to ‘enter’ a conversation; to find a way in.

How do we support them?

By pausing frequently!

Pausing invites our children to make a comment on what has been said, to ask a question, to share their own stories… Don’t forget to make your pauses long enough to give the child time to process what you’ve said and to come up with their response.


So you’ve paused to invite your child using AAC into the conversation and they don’t respond. Maybe they don’t have anything to add. Or maybe they’re unsure of what to say/how to say it- after all, learning to use a new communication system is tough!

We can gently prompt our children by guiding them in how to continue a conversation.

Let’s say, for example, their friend is talking about their weekend… and then there is that pause, signalling it’s someone else’s turn to talk.

I tend to use a bit of a hierarchy of prompts:

I like to start with an indirect prompt e.g “I wonder if Ben did anything interesting at the weekend…?”

If this doesn’t spark a response, I might move on to a direct prompt e.g “In your activities page there are some things you might have done at the weekend”.

For children struggling to navigate through their new device, I might need to provide a manual prompt, taking them to the correct page while talking them through each step.

Don’t rush each prompt; your child might just require a little extra time!


Going back to the ‘awkward party conversation’ analogy- if we are not engaged in a conversation, we lose interest. We try to step away; to find a way of escaping.

It’s exactly the same for our children! We need to engage with them in conversations that interest them. To do that, we need to follow their lead; pay attention to the things that they are interested in and then create opportunities to talk about those things!


A child learning to use a communication aid will sometimes make mistakes. They might say the wrong word, leave words out, jumble up their ideas…

And that’s ok- we all frequently make mistakes in our speech or struggle to find the right words. Count how many times you say ‘umm’, ‘erm’, ‘like’, etc in a conversation and you’ll see what I mean! Our speech isn’t always fluent.

When a child forms an incomplete phrase or says something that others may not fully understand, we can model the sentence back to them or summarise what they have said (restating).

For example, a child might join 2 or 3 words together to make a short phrase e.g. “Mr Tumble favourite”- we know what they mean and to demonstrate that we can say, “Oh Mr Tumble is your favourite?!” To support them in developing their use of phrases, we might even point to the symbols as we say the words, demonstrating how they can expand on their message.

So just to re-cap:

P-presume competence, E- eye-contact, P-pause, P- prompt, E- engage, R- restate

Maybe a little pinch of pepper might enhance our children’s conversations?! Let’s try not to be like that awkward party guest that our children using communication aids want to avoid…!! After all, a good communication partner = good communication!



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!

Communication aids and icebergs


Imagine that you couldn’t speak.

And then one day, you were given a ‘voice’.

How would you respond?

Maybe you’d feel overwhelmed. You might initially remain quiet, unsure of what to say or how to say it. You might not know which words to use or how to put them together. After all, speaking is new to you- like a toddler learning to walk, you might feel a bit wobbly and unsure to begin with.

Or you might be incredibly excited, desperate to make your views known, to finally express yourself. Other people might be surprised by the things that you want to tell them- All these thoughts have been inside of you for such a long time; you’ve got a lot of catching up to do!

One of my favourite roles as a Speech and Language Therapist is working with children who are non-verbal, supporting them to find a means of communication that suits them. That might be something simple, like a paper-based communication book or it might be a very tech-y voice output communication aid!

What I find fascinating, is how having a voice helps to reveal that child’s personality. Language is an incredible tool, allowing us to be humorous, to show empathy, to question, to comment, make requests, etc, etc. And when a child discovers that they now have the means to do all of this, they might feel like Person A- a little apprehensive, needing a little guidance- or like Person B- excited, enthusiastic, unsure of how to use this new skill but desperate to get started!

I saw this infographic on Twitter a while back which sums the whole process up quite nicely. Unfortunately I don’t know who made it, but all credit to them for making a visual which demonstrates that learning to use a communication system actually involves a lot of ‘behind-the-scenes’ work. I’m going to use this iceberg to discuss some of the important factors that lie under the surface of helping a child to use their new voice effectively.

Most of the children I work with use symbols to communicate. I like to think of symbols as a unique, independent language in their own right-a child has to learn to attach a meaning to a symbol, just as those of us who are verbal, learn to attach meaning to a word. The child will not automatically know that something as abstract as two arrows means ‘more’  or that a stick man holding a yellow ball means ‘favourite’.

But yet these symbols are so powerful! When listening to a song, the child can now reveal their opinion and make requests- “I want more Justin Bieber! He’s my favourite!”

How does the child learn to use these symbols to make this impact? By seeing us, as educators, health professionals or parents, using them again and again! By constantly being immersed in symbols and everyday language skills such as joining 2 symbols together to make a phrase (e.g. “More music”).  All of these skills have to be modelled and taught- This is a process which involves careful planning and takes times.

What’s become clearer to me recently is that beyond learning the language skills of a new communication system, there is this entire ‘Pandora’s Box’ of social skills.

So again, imagine that suddenly you have been given a voice and you’ve discovered what a powerful tool it is- At times you might get over-excited and talk when other people are talking. You might find it difficult to listen or wait for your turn. You’ve been quiet for so long that your thoughts and feelings now seem urgent- you feel like you need to express them right away!

You might be unsure of how to initiate communication….Or you might say things that are deemed socially inappropriate at the wrong time.

Communication is a minefield! We want our new communicators to say what they want, to express themselves. But yet communication is so much more than words and sentences- it’s taking turns, it’s responding appropriately, it’s knowing when it’s ok to make that joke vs when it’s not ok!

As the infographic demonstrated, the voice is only the tip of the iceberg! Everything going on beneath the surface needs to be taught and explained to our children learning to use their new communication system- including these subtle social skills.

Maybe we do that through Social Stories or visual cue cards. Maybe we praise our children for effective use of social skills, rewarding them for good listening and turn-taking. Maybe we have group discussions on how our language can make other people feel good (e.g. compliments) vs how our language can hurt other people (e.g. insults). Whatever we do, social skills need to be considered in our work with children using communication aids, just as they would be in our targets for verbal children with speech, language and communication needs.

One of the simplest, most touching moments of my work as a Speech and Language Therapist was when I initially set up an eye-gaze communication aid for a young girl who I work with. I took it out of the packaging, went through the set up, calibrated her eyes with the screen and we played a few cause and effect games. Then we loaded up her communication software and together, we played around with the ‘Chat page’, having a simple 2 way interaction using the device.

That afternoon, the girl’s mum came into school to see the new device that her daughter would be using. I’d put the chat page on screen and as the child’s mum sat down, her daughter said “Hello”, using this beautiful, clear, crisp, child’s voice through her communication aid.

I saw her mum’s eyes well up with tears and all I could think was how powerful that one word was. ‘Hello’- a greeting, an acknowledgement of someone’s presence, a conversation starter….

It seems so simple, but there is so much weight behind it. Just like the iceberg, that one word was just the tip, the meaning was everything under the surface.

Over the years that have followed as I’ve worked with this child, her school and her family, I’ve tried to consider the iceberg model. Everything takes time and practice. Communication isn’t something that anyone perfects over night.

We want our children to communicate to the best of their ability; to use their voice to make friends and to feel involved. The more supportive input the child receives, the better the output!

Or to put it another way-the bigger the iceberg, the better!

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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dKCdV20zLMs