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Special days

Maria Corby detects promising signs in modern speech therapy

You can always spot the speech and language therapists coming down the corridor. They've usually got their arms full of strange things such as cloaks, puppets, pineapples and teapots. They mutter things like "I've got the black plastic mac, but I can't find the wooden reindeer", and would sell their granny for a strip of Velcro and some laminating sheets. Even so, they are a lot less mysterious these days.

When I first worked in special schools some 20 years ago, children were taken to separate rooms by speech therapists who, behind closed doors, did some magic with them involving doll's house furniture and tick lists.

Increasingly, though, Samp;LTs (as they are known) are in classrooms, working alongside teachers and assistants. Ten children in a class can equal 10 different communication systems including speech, signing, use of real objects to cue the child in to the next activity, pictures, picture symbols and the written word.

A really organised teacher will run a "total communication" system; when it's time to go swimming he or she tells the class, and signs to them and shows them a picture or symbol. We can then get specific - Donna, who is deaf-blind, needs to hold her arm bands and smell the chlorine on them.

Aaron, who is autistic and a "visual learner", will read the written word on his personal timetable and Craig, who is transitioning between using real objects and symbols, has a piece of arm band on a card which he will look at and feel to understand that swimming is next.

By far the best fun is signing. Staff often use it while out and about socially; a discreet middle finger to the opposite shoulder indicates "toilet" and avoids telling the whole pub where you're going. And in a noisy club it's easy enough to sign "Fiona's pulled" or "vodka and Red Bull please" (not on a week day, of course), however high the decibels.

The only time it can get embarrassing, however, is at lunchtime with the kids. Of course it's good practice to teach the signs for potatoes, beef and custard. I'll have a go at making up signs for dishes such as shepherd's pie but since a humiliation I've found hard to live down, I've had to draw the line at sausage cobbler and spotted dick.

Maria Corby is the deputy head of a special school for pupils with severe and multiple learning difficulties in the west of England. She writes under a pseudonym

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