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Signs of the times

Hilary Wilce introduces the language programme Makaton

Twenty-five years ago a speech and language therapist, Margaret Walker, devised a language programme of signs and symbols to help people with severe communication problems. Today, that programme, Makaton, is used by an estimated 100,000 people in the UK, and in 40 countries worldwide, including Japan, Saudi Arabia and Zimbabwe. And, with Makaton increasingly being introduced in hospitals, social services departments, and on public transport, its signs and symbols are likely to become an increasingly familiar part of the everyday world.

"People use it in different ways," says Elizabeth Leverton, Makaton marketing manager. "People who are autistic, for example, often don't like eye contact, and the signs and symbols can be very useful to them as a way of talking without having to look at you. Or people might have Down's syndrome, or a profound physical disability. It can be used from the cradle to the grave. Children just a few months old can be introduced to symbols, but most parents probably come across it once their child is referred to a speech and language therapist. It can also be customised to suit particular needs. You can easily use symbols for chapatis and naan bread, if you want, instead of burgers and chips."

Makaton includes both signs and written symbols. It follows the exact spoken word order and allows for the easy translation of words into speech and symbols. The system can be used on different levels. A sentence can be translated into just one general sign or symbol, or translated into several key ones, or signs and symbols can be used to translate every linguistic element.

Makaton symbols are highly pictographic, and simple enough to be drawn by hand. The symbol for doctor, for example, is a stick person with a stethoscope next to it. A baby is a sausage-like wrap with a tiny face. A website is a computer with www on the screen.

The programme sprang out of a research study of the functional communication needs of people with disabilities. From this developed a core of 7,000 essential concepts, which has since been developed further with add-on units covering subjects such as "animals, transport and vehicles", "people, building and places", and - the latest one - "growth and development", which covers physical, social, emotional and sexual development.

"Our work would be very, very difficult without it," says Sue Greenhough, head of Kelford school, in Rotherham, a special school whose 107 pupils have severe and complex learning difficulties. "Communication is our highest priority, and we've used Makaton consistently now for more than eight years."

All 18 teachers and 40 support staff at the school are trainedin Makaton, and the school sees improved behaviour stemming from improved communication. "The dinner ladies know 'yes' and 'no' and 'small' and 'big', which means children can have some control over what they're getting. We had one boy who threw his dinner plate across the room and kicked staff practically every day, but we've had nothing like that for a long time, and he's starting to speak more, too."

Makaton signs and symbol are available on disc, and the school uses these to print out resources, type up children's news, and to overlay reading books with Makaton symbols. If children are sent on errands in school they might be given a physical symbol to carry, to remind them of what it is they are going to get.

Staff at the school are also involved in training others to use Makaton. There is a parent workshop once a week, and Sue Greenhough, a regional Makaton tutor, has trained teachers in mainstream schools and been called in by a local paediatric consultant to advise on what symbols would aid communication in hospital.

Opportunities to learn Makaton are readily available. "We have a network of tutors in this country, and licensed tutors in other countries," says Elizabeth Leverton. "You might go on a day course, or more. It depends what you want. You can easily learn a few signs in just a few minutes."

In Lincolnshire, as part of a three-year programme to improve access on local buses, signing and symbol advisers are this year training drivers in basic Makaton. Work is also being done to help young people who have to appear in court, and on ways to help victims of abuse communicate what has happened to them. Most of the 700-plus teachers are language therapists, teachers and heads, but for those who cannot get to a local workshop, distance learning packages are available. Other resources include a computer package Writing with Symbols, a variety of resource packs, and a much-loved nursery-rhyme tape.

The Makaton Vocabulary Development Trust is an award-winning charity, run from its founder's home in Camberley, and uses funds from the sale of resources to develop the programme further. Requests pour in, but money is always tight. Curently, for example, it is seeking sponsorship for the production of a second nursery-rhyme tape.

"Sometimes people say to us 'Oh, Makaton. We don't need you any more', and that's great. We love to hear that people have moved on from using us," says Elizabeth Leverton. "But at the same time, we know that the number of communication-impaired children is leaping up, and the need is enormous."

Makaton Vocabulary Development Programme, 31 Firwood Drive, Camberley, Surrey GU15 3QD.Tel: 01276 61390 Email: mvdp@makaton.orgWeb:

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