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Understanding communication in a specialist school

Lilias Nicholls, Speech and Language Therapist at the National Autistic Society’s Daldorch House School, outlines some of the communication methods used at the school. She also describes how one pupil has been supported to increase his vocabulary using PECS.

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Author: Lilias Nicholls

Understanding communication in a specialist school

The National Autistic Society’s Daldorch House School is a day and residential school situated in rural East Ayrshire, Scotland. We offer education, following the Curriculum for  Excellence, to young people aged 8 to 21 with a diagnosis of autism who have been referred by their local authority. The school also offers short breaks and an outreach service.

Our campus is large, containing a play park and an adventure park with an assault course. We also have the use of a meadow with a walking and cycle path and beautiful country walks. Inside we have a soft play and activity room, relaxation/sensory room, a dining room, large gym, life skills room and individual study rooms as well as spacious classrooms.  

Our foundation is based around TEACCH, SPELL and Studio 3. Most of our pupils have severe to profound communication difficulties so we use visual schedules to support their understanding of day to day activities. Depending on the cognitive ability of the pupil these may be in the form of:

  • concrete objects
  • photographs
  • symbols
  • written word.

A primary communication aim is to maintain continuity and consistency throughout the pupils’ day as comprehension and expression tend to be impaired in all our pupils.

Forms of communication

Many of the pupils are pre-verbal and others use one or two word phrases to make their needs and wants known.  After assessment, which is mostly informal, and taking into account the pupils` developmental level, the immediate aim is to ascertain whether pre-verbal pupils want to use pointing, exchanging, signing or a mixture of all three as their form of functional communication.

A number of pupils at Daldorch use PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) to let us know what they want but some pupils also use PECS within the curriculum to recall stories and learn colours, sizes and numbers.

Some pupils use pointing books in a similar way to PECS except they point to the symbols or photographs instead of exchanging. Several pupils prefer to sign as their functional form of communication and at Daldorch we use Signalong. Every staff member is taught a basic vocabulary at their Induction and staff who have a signing pupil in their class or house are required to have regular training sessions in Signalong to increase their vocabulary and be better able to communicate with their pupil.

After assessment from SCTCI (Scottish Centre of Technology for the Communication Impaired) we have had pupils using hi-tech aids such as ProxTalker, Dynavox and Nova Chats. Our pupils enjoy using their iPads but these tend to be more in use as leisure or class activities and not for direct communication purposes.

To discover pupils views on how they are feeling about school etc... we use a variety of tools depending on the pupil`s developmental level, for example:

  • Talking Mats
  • symbol and word questionaires
  • talking books
  • videos of our young people involved in school life
  • parental feedback.

Case study

Peter (not his real name) is 17. He is pre-verbal with comprehension limited to two information words in a sentence. He has severe verbal dyspraxia and verbal auditory agnosia. Peter is a symbol user and has a good memory for shapes which means he can recognise some simple words. Peter came to school using Phase 3 of PECS (differentiation of symbols).

Apart from motoric communication (use of body language), PECS is Peter`s only form of functional communication. If Peter was distressed or frustrated by a particular situation that he was unable to communicate about he would rely on expressing this physically, often either hurting himself or others. Increasing a useful vocabulary, quickly, was imperative.

‘Toilet’ and ‘go-away’ were the first extra symbols to be added to his basic snack and food vocabulary. Using the go-away symbol allowed Peter to tell us he needed his space and to be by himself for a short time, and he gradually began to use this effectively before he went into a meltdown: he was beginning to self- regulate.

When Peter arrived at Daldorch he has no symbol for toilet in his PECS book. Adding it allowed him to be in charge of this most basic human right. ‘Home’, ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’ were added soon after, alleviating the distress of having no means to ask when he was going home again.

Next we moved Peter onto Phase 4 (sentence) using ‘I want’. Very quickly Peter was using sentences to request food, the toilet and outings. From I want we added ‘I see’ and ‘I hear’. Now Peter is using his PECS at Phases 5 and 6 using adjectives of size and colour to recall stories and to recall his own outings. We have just introduced a joining word – ‘and’ - plus plurals. Peter`s motor planning skills have developed and this enables us to organise topic boards with subject, verb and object columns with an extra column for and. 

The look of pleasure on Peter`s face as he exchanges his strip, having compiled his long informative sentences is so rewarding. It`s one of many reasons why we do the job.

Date added: 12 December 2016