Pictures and symbols can help people with special needs convey what they need or want. It may require some guesswork, but it's liberating for everyone. Louisa Leaman reports
Working in a special needs school, you get used to the many weird and wonderful ways of supporting pupils who have no verbal communication. Knowing the child is absolutely essential: there is a lot that can be understood through an individual's gestures, actions, facial expressions and vocalisations.
But when this kind of non-verbal communication is vague or confused, one good tool to employ, which many special needs staff will be familiar with, is the Picture Exchange Communication System (Pecs).
It uses symbols and pictures to help children with autism communicate and express their wants and needs.
The pupils hand pictures to the teacher - perhaps of something they want to eat - without speaking. The idea is to encourage spontaneous, self-initiated communication, thus paving the way for increased independence and self-esteem. For example, if a pupil can ask for the toilet as soon as they need to go, rather than waiting for someone to approach them, that is surely liberating.
Pecs works through six different phases: from this simple picture exchange up to pupils being able to talk about things around them unprompted, or answering a teacher's question.
It can be used as an alternative communication system for those who have no verbal ability, or it can support individuals who have words but need some encouragement and support in using them effectively.
The majority of pupils under my care are working within the earliest phase of Pecs and may well remain at this stage, due to the severity of their learning needs.
One of the barriers is that they do not always attach meaning to the symbolic pictures. One of my pupils has become highly adept at exchanging a Pecs symbol for food (a great motivator), but isn't able to discriminate what the symbol represents. She once tried to give me a picture of a shoe to get at some crisps.
Nonetheless, it is encouraging to see a pupil who would otherwise have a passive relationship with the world coming forward and initiating an interaction
Louisa Leaman teaches at Waverley School in Middlesex
Next week: Louisa Leaman writes about intensive interaction. For further information about Pecs, visit www.pecs.org.uk.