Make a connection

9th May 2008 at 01:00
Think of all the ways you can communicate. Special needs teachers know that words will only get you so far with children. Louisa Leaman tries a hands-on approach
Think of all the ways you can communicate. Special needs teachers know that words will only get you so far with children. Louisa Leaman tries a hands-on approach

In the classroom, effective communication is vital. Take a peek into the average mainstream classroom and you'll probably hear words and speech bouncing off the walls. But imagine if none of your pupils were able to use "words".

Anyone who has worked within the area of severe learning difficulties andor autism will know the unusual communication challenge that these individuals can present. A number of my pupils are at the early stages of communication development. In other words, they are pre-speech, and some of them display self-stimulatory behaviours (such as humming or crying) that make them difficult to reach.

That's not to say that communication is not important to them - in fact, quite the opposite is true. Without other people paying attention to their communication needs, they risk becoming more socially isolated and detached from the world.

Intensive interaction is an approach that was developed in the Eighties to meet the social and learning needs of pupils who are unable to rely on words as their primary form of communication. It is designed to develop the fundamentals of communication, including:

- Learning to give brief attention to others.

- Taking turns to speak and listen.

- Using and understanding eye contact.

- Using and understanding facial expressions, gestures and body language.

- Developing vocalisations that gradually become more varied and extensive and then more precise and meaningful.

It requires nothing more than a willing partner to interact with, and a bit of space and time. The distinct thing about intensive interaction sessions is that they are led and directed by the pupil - if the pupil does something (such as clapping their hands or smacking their lips), then the partner responds by mimicking or joining in. Some sessions can be loud and playful. Others can be quiet and slow. The emphasis is always on enjoyment, so that reluctant communicators are motivated.

I recently worked with a pupil who had lots of squawks and giggles, but no words. She was sociable and keen to interact with others, but got frustrated when the people around her didn't respond or understand. Her frustration frequently turned to aggression, and those in the way would get a smack on the nose.

Daily intensive interaction sessions worked wonders for her, providing her with a regular "fix" of focused communication that raised her self-esteem. Within a week she stopped lashing out and became more relaxed.

Next week: sensology.

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