Many young people who do not use spoken language to communicate want friends and positive relationships with those other youngsters they associate with.
Often times the same young people have intensive work from very thoughtful therapists and educators attempting to create technological as well as lower tech communication systems for their use. What is often striking is that the communication systems are not being used by other young people, only professionals trained in their use. The young person themselves can also sometimes seem reluctant to make use of them until confronted by the AAC teacher or Speech and Language Therapist. Many technical and even paper systems rely on 1: 1 exchange rather than for group participation. All this can be confusing and frustrating for all involved.
Friendships and social inclusion with other young people requires communication of some form and non-verbals only take us so far. After all -children go to school to be included by other children not just by the adults. Many times, we have encouraged families and educators to be intentional about building relationships, to create conditions in which friendship can grow. Our Circle of friends work is probably the most well recognised approach to this both in the UK and Eastern Europe. The approach depends upon a group of young people recruited through empathy building who want to create change around a focus student, doing whatever it will take to have invitations, phone calls and social media glow around them.
So what do we do about communication processes? We need these to be easy and child friendly surely? Not too technology heavy or again we create a barrier. Equally systems too reliant on adults is also problematic unless they are placed by the young person in Communication Partner role? Perhaps children could learn to be communication partners? A communication partner is a person who is responsible for ensuring your communication is heard however you are communicating.
We need low tech, accessible communication systems that can be learned easily by other young people and lend themselves to paired and ideally group situations. At it simplest Yes/No lanyards or agreed gestures allow for choices for peers to make use of. Letter boards and more complex books of symbols, pictures and key phrases and words with colour coding could be learned by children from quite young if we set out to teach these skills as we would if we had a child who needed Maceton or BSL in the classroom. Child friendly systems would include the street and playground language of the peer group including curses, slang and words unfamiliar to adults.
Silent sessions where each child uses a communication board/book in a small group with the non-speaking classmate would be an interesting development. Or how about students working in pairs in a small group along with silent classmate –each with a communication partner all using the identical communication system?
Relationships thrive on trust, regular positive contact, shared activity and interests and of course some kind of communication to really flourish! Let’s get really creative about developing child friendly communication systems as we build relationships intentionally with those who most need this.