Mat's the way to express yourself

A simple doormat is having an extraordinary impact on people with communication problems, says Julia Horton

Julia Horton

It's a nice irony that the humble doormat, long used as a term of derision for the downtrodden, is now helping to empower and educate thousands of people around the world.

Talking Mats is a simple, low-tech Scottish solution to a complex range of communication problems faced by children and adults with learning difficulties and dementia.

Instead of struggling to express themselves purely through speech, or using technical aids, pupils answer questions and voice opinions by placing Velcro-backed symbols representing different topics on to a doormat divided into three clear response areas - a thumbs up sign on the left for positive feelings, a negative thumbs down on the right, leaving the middle as neutral or undecided ground.

"No bad," 15-year-old Liam Edmondson responds positively when speech and language therapist Margo Mackay asks him how he feels about reading.

Clearly uncertain, however, he holds on to the symbol before eventually placing it in the centre of the mat.

"So you've put it in the middle. Sometimes you find reading a wee bit tricky?" Mrs Mackay checks gently and Liam nods.

As a teenage pupil at Wallace High in Stirling with dyspraxia and ADHD, he finds it harder than most to express himself - though he's clearly very chatty and confident.

Liam is one of a group of pupils in the area taking part in a pilot using Talking Mats to help those with additional support needs give their views on their individual education plans (IEP).

The mat helps him to see his answers clearly and allows him to move symbols around if he realises that they don't represent his real view, or he wants to change something.

Later, he agrees that reading is something he would like to "move" to a better spot on the mat; in other words, he thinks it should be one of his IEP targets.

"It can be quite daunting for young people to go into these IEP meetings," Mrs Mackay says. "If they use Talking Mats to explain what they think their targets should be beforehand, we can take a picture of their mat which they can bring to the meeting to help them."

She adds: "Often IEP targets focus on literacy, numeracy and behaviour, whereas using Talking Mats we can ask young people about all areas of their life and identify a much better range of targets which are important to them, such as coping with stress."

Mrs Mackay is using her findings to create a new set of symbols designed for IEP work.

Teachers at dozens of schools across Scotland and around the world already use earlier versions of Talking Mats, which was created 14 years ago by fellow Scottish speech and language therapist Joan Murphy during research with people who had cerebral palsy.

Now based at the University of Stirling, Dr Murphy says: "I wanted to ask them what they thought of our research afterwards, but they couldn't tell me using their high-tech communication aids, they just didn't seem to have the vocabulary, so I thought I would create something visual so that they could. It's literally a doormat, from Morrisons' value range."

Teachers and other professionals undergo training that Dr Murphy says is crucial to getting the most benefit from the mats.

Existing versions include one created with pupils at Fife residential school Starley Hall, featuring 60 different symbols which help young people participate in review meetings and setting educational targets.

In Edinburgh, an early years educational version of the tool is being developed to help nursery staff meet the Scottish initiative, Getting it Right for Every Child (GIRFEC).

Symbols cover three topics including "Things I do", with options like sports, to make it easier for pre-school children to take part in planning their education.


Discussing money and jobs can make even the most articulate person tongue- tied. But an innovative tool, originally created to help tackle communication problems affecting people with cerebral palsy, is now being used to give careers advice to university students.

Called Talking Mats, the invention involves answering questions by placing symbols on to a mat that is divided into three response areas: positive, negative and neutral or unsure.

While pupils with learning difficulties use picture cards covering activities like reading and social media, students of all abilities and levels use cards exploring issues like interview techniques, with options such as "eye contact" and "preparation".

Elaine Watson (right), who has been a careers adviser at the University of Stirling for 25 years, is pioneering research that she hopes will see the unusual spin-off used to help students across Scotland and beyond.

She says: "Our students often have difficulty articulating in careers interviews what their priorities are and although I'm fairly experienced, sometimes even I struggle. It can be hard talking about the difficulties of getting a job, or financial worries, and expressing themselves while looking you straight in the eye.

"The mats depersonalise it. Students can put their answers down and we can use the rest of the time to reflect on what's in front of us.

"We wouldn't use this with every student, but we have found it to be an absolutely phenomenal tool."

The response from students has been entirely positive, she adds, with one second-year psychology student crediting the mat for "building confidence" about the future.

Talking Mats fits a growing trend in careers guidance for a more "narrative, constructivist" approach to helping young people progress to jobs that suit them best.

Mrs Watson, who has already trained staff at other universities including Aberdeen to use the tool, is conducting further work aimed at expanding use of the mats in careers guidance.


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