Communicating when words disappear – what is the alternative?

Communication, generally speaking uses a combination of verbal and non-verbal behaviours to express or convey a message.

Speech is often used to get our message across to another person and can be supplemented using various non-verbal behaviours and gestures. Speech allows us to communicate our needs and wants ultimately resulting in those needs and wants being met.

However, on some occasions, speech can be inhibited or difficult to express when anxiety or stress is heightened. Often the difficulty lies in the processing of the incoming information (as well as external stimuli ie, sensory input, from the surrounding environment) and making sense of it all, which can lead to a breakdown in the translation of messages.

In this situation, the person should be provided with alternative choices of communication that will support their immediate needs and wants. Knowing and understanding the alternative methods of communication is crucial to assisting the person to communicate. Both the person needing to communicate and the support person/people should ideally have experience in using other forms of communication.

Other forms of communication as an alternative to speech include the augmentative and alternative communication systems. ‘Augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) includes all forms of communication (other than oral speech) that are used to express thoughts, needs, wants, and ideas.’ (More information found at http://www.asha.org/public/speech/disorders/AAC/)

Such systems as Picture Exchange Communication Systems (PECS), the use of signs and gestures (Auslan & Key Word Sign), speech generated devices and digital devices with applications such as Proloquo2go are just a few examples of alternative ways to communicate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Picture Exchange Communication System                                          Proloquo2go

 

As a support person, it is important to understand that whilst someone is experiencing over stimulation or overload, not to insist that they communicate there and then, but to allow them the space and time to calm for when they are ready to. Sometimes communicating by using a simple gesture such as a ‘thumbs up’ or a ‘thumbs down’ can indicate how a person might be feeling without the need to pry for more information.

Having an understanding and knowledge of how to use alternatives to spoken language, helps to support a person having difficulty using their words when feeling overwhelmed, still giving them the opportunity to be able to communicate their needs and wants.

 

Planning for a life-stage transition – Assessing where to begin

It’s the beginning of June and in about eight months time one of my family members will be in the midst of a life-stage transition. What do I mean by life-stage? A transition that takes a person into a new stage of life. A new stage of experiences and routines. A new stage that leaves much of the familiarity of the past behind.

Knowing how much this family member craves predictability, routine and sameness, our planning and transitioning has already begun – because the impact of the changeover won’t be small and needs to be handled with great care. We need to make sure we’re providing the best chance of success.

So where do you begin with planning? When do you start? How long will you need? How do you know what will be best for the person transitioning?

When we’re supporting anyone through transition, we always start with the impact assessment. What do we know about this person? What has been their experience of transition or change in the past? How do they generally cope with new things or being around new people? What are their executive functioning skills like (eg. ability to plan, organise themselves or switch focus)?

This is where we put the one-size fits all approach to the side. It’s about understanding the person, their individual needs, and working forward from there. We focus our attention on what’s needed and we save ourselves from planning strategies and supports that may not be necessary.

If you support someone who will be moving into a transition period in the coming months, take some time to think about the potential impact of the change. The better prepared you are, the better off everyone will be.

Elissa 🙂

How everyday interactions help with communication – personal reflection

Communication can present in many different forms and is definitely not restricted to just one method. Effective communication includes a whole range of methods that assist in conveying or receiving a message.

All of us at any one time will have used a combination of methods to enhance or compliment speech or have used in place of speech when it became difficult to express our needs or wants (due to heightened anxiety or stress).

For my non-verbal son, communication is conveyed in many different ways with behaviour often the primary strategy, particularly when he is overloaded or in meltdown.

Over the years I have come to understand and can generally pinpoint his needs from specific mannerisms and verbalisations. For example, he has noise sensitivities and will cover his ears when background noises are a problem. However, he will also cover his ears when feeling anxious about trying something new or if in a new environment. Knowing the difference is what makes it tricky for people who support him on a daily basis and it might mean eliminating other factors ie, when he covers his ears and there is no background noise apparent, then it’s likely that he is experiencing anxiety or fear.

Working out what factors are involved have been somewhat trial and error and also having the knowledge of how my son tries to communicate through his body language. I have been able to observe and mentally ‘take note’ of the specific behaviours over time to know what it is that he needs.

As a support person, it is really important to observe, ask questions and talk to others who also support the individual to find out how they communicate and how they use body language so that everyone understands what it is that they need or want.

Sherri x

What I’d most like people to know – a personal reflection

‘We live in a world where moving smoothly and successfully through typical milestones and life stages, and establishing our place in the crowd seems the norm. Day to day interactions that fit within the box appear easier than being different – but is this really the case?’

As we head towards the end of April and the end of Autism Acceptance month, this post is dedicated to all of us who do things differently – who think differently, who socialise differently, who communicate differently, who learn differently, and who ultimately process and understand the world differently. This post is a personal reflection, on some things that I’d like people to know.

It was 7 years ago that I first stepped into my diagnosis.

Autism had only been at the forefront of my mind for a few years at that stage, but it was quickly becoming my long lost friend – my ‘normal’ as I began my personal journey of discovery and self-understanding.

The years following diagnosis were, and still are, eye opening, at the very least. As I often say to people, my life seemed to come apart a little bit as I realised who I was, but that simply meant that I could put things back together the way that they should be – the way that felt right to me.

Much of what I live personally links and flows with what I teach from a professional perspective, and so this post is about lived insight – these are some things that I’d love you to know:

Sensory processing challenges are real

One of the challenges with managing the sensory system is not always simply about managing the input or output – sometimes it’s about getting other people to understand how real and how debilitating it can be.

If you don’t live with sensory processing differences, it can be difficult to really grasp what it’s like. It’s hard to understand what it feels like when the world closes in on you – with movement or light that seems to burn in to your very being. Or when your body desperately just needs to move – regardless of whatever else is going on. Or when your head feels like it’s going to explode from the noise that creeps in to every part of your thinking and brings you to a halt in all that you’re doing. The sense of being overwhelmed or in desperate need of what your body craves can be scary and isolating if you feel like nobody understands.

So please take a step back when you can. And forward plan for those you support. Build in movement where it’s needed. Build in options for sensory friendly spaces and activities where you know an environment will likely create chaos. Even if you don’t know what it feels like yourself, show that you’re trying to understand and trying to help – it will mean so much!

Having a ‘social game face’ is exhausting

“You seem to cope so well” is the phrase that says it all. But it’s not always the case.

Hence why it’s so important to take the time to understand what is going on below the surface of the ‘game face’. Burn out comes quickly and easily if care is not taken – social exhaustion is real, especially when socialisation isn’t the natural choice.

Being in a box is not the only place to be

Boxes….. neat systems, methods and environments that contain our norms.

At many stages throughout my life, I always worked very hard at fitting in the box. It was the place to be ‘unnoticed’ and the place you had to be in to be sure that you would make a successful life for yourself.

Looking back on my life, and now, I realise how wrong I had it. It brought anxiety, a poor sense of self, and a ‘greyness’ to my world. I realise how debilitating that was for me, and how life-draining that place can be for someone who doesn’t fit the box comfortably, or who would have a more successful life hanging over the side of the box.

I think it’s so important to step back and look at what the boxes that we have established in our world might be doing to people – particularly to people who DO think, learn, communicate, socialise or process the world differently. And ask yourself – how can I open this box up? How can I work towards ensuring that I don’t push people into boxes that aren’t made for them? How can I break some boxes apart so that we as a community start looking at people for who they are and what they need rather than looking at which box they might fit.

Acceptance is the best way forward

Acceptance gives us a chance to grow – to blossom and to be the best version of who we can be. I think that says it all!

So there you have it… just a few things that I wanted you to know.

If there are things that you’d like other people to know, please share them in the comments below – there’s always room for sharing and learning.

Elissa x

Chunking or simplifying tasks / learning activities

When we think of planning a worksheet or a written task, often we write down as much as possible and provide very detailed explanations. We might even make it look attractive to entice the learner to want to complete the assigned task or activity.

For the learner who struggles with information processing and all of those areas of executive functioning that make it difficult with such tasks, they are in fact put at a disadvantage trying to decipher what actually needs to be done – they have absolutely no idea of where to begin!

Just the very thought of attempting the task or activity in addition to the visual overload of information is enough to increase a person’s anxiety to the point of becoming completely overwhelmed.

Tasks or activities presented in a written format would be far better set out in a step by step procedure using ‘simple to understand’ language clearly stating what needs to be done. It is sometimes useful, depending on the learner, to represent instructions visually by using pictures / symbols. Also worth thinking about is whether the learner has to do all of the tasks assigned or is there the opportunity to only have a couple of tasks that need to be completed? Presenting the tasks one at a time to the learner with a target timeframe for completion might mean that activities are more likely to be attempted rather than a few tasks given to them all at once.

Using the learner’s special interests wherever possible can help to engage the learner to  complete those tasks that are necessary. Linking special interests to the task at hand inspires the learner to research and complete the activities moving beyond what is required or even needed. For example, a project assigned to the learner asking them to research ‘the black hole’ and its relevance to the universe would be ideal for the learner who has a fascination with space.

Considering all of the tips above, it would be definitely worth trying and you might just find that the learner is more willing to attempt the activities that are planned!

 

Executive Functioning in day to day living and learning

What is executive function? And why do we need to know about it?

Executive functioning relates to our ability to regulate, plan and organise ourselves, as well as concentrate and hold things in our working memory. These skills are controlled by a part of the brain known as the frontal lobe.

If a person has challenges with executive functioning, we’re likely to see this impact on many areas of their life – how they go about their day to day tasks and learning.

The following are some of the signs you might see if a person is struggling with executive functioning:

  • Self control – where someone may constantly seem to act or speak impulsively without thinking about what they’re doing, or where they seem to have little control over their emotions or in regulating how they feel or interact with the world. (An example of this might be in a school setting with a student who constantly interrupts their teacher.)
  • Working memory – where someone struggles to remember what they’re doing, loses track of what they’re thinking, or seems distracted by other things.
  • Planning and organising – where someone has difficulty in working out where to begin a task or difficulty gathering materials for a task. (For young people, this might play out at school with tasks not being done or materials being left in a locker or at home. For an adult, this might play out as someone not knowing where to begin with the housework, or not planning for ingredients in the pantry to make dinner.)

Whilst the difficulties that some people have with executive functioning can be frustrating to those around them, we MUST remember that it’s not something that the person is doing on purpose. And we need to work to support them and to help them develop strategies that they can use to support themselves.

Try one of the following:

  • Use plenty of visual reminders and prompts to help with remembering things. Visual supports are invaluable for people who need a little extra help with processing information!
  • Work alongside a person to help them understand what is involved in a task and how tasks can be broken down into manageable ‘chunks’. Chunking tasks or information allows for easier planning and processing of ‘where to begin’ and ‘what to do next’ rather than everything being overwhelming.

These two strategies are just a sample of what we can do to support executive functioning.

We’ll be talking more about executive functioning in coming posts, so look out for more ideas!

What does behaviour tell us about support needs?

When we see a behaviour, there is an underlying reason for why that behaviour is occurring. Whether or not it’s an appropriate behaviour, it’s letting us know that the person is asking for help or support to get what they need. Behaviour is a way to communicate a need or want in response to the environment.

So how do we look past the behaviour to find out what the need or want is?

We can use a variety of methods that show the reasons for the behaviour once we begin to analyse and look much deeper beyond what we see. To do this effectively, you need to chart the behaviour and look closely at what might be the triggers or causes.

We developed a ‘Behaviour Communication Analysis’ that aims to look at what’s happening at the time of the behaviour and assess the many factors that come into play as a result. This format allows you to look closely at the behaviour while it’s occurring, think about the potential triggers or causes for the behaviour, and work out why the behaviour occurred in the first place. We can explain it further by the looking at the following categories:

  1. Look at the Behaviour (in the moment) – jot down the behaviour that you see, thinking about the following:                                                                                                              –   what is happening?                                                                                                        –   what is in the environment?                                                                                           –   who is there?
  2. Interpreting the Behaviour (potential triggers)                                                                      –   what happened earlier?                                                                                                 –   who has the person had contact with?                                                                          –   what environments has the person been in?
  3. Analysis of the Behaviour (the purpose or function)                                                          –   what might the behaviour be communicating?

We have provided a sample of an analysis that shows more clearly how you might assess a behaviour and get a better picture of the underlying reasons:

Only after it’s clearly set out in a format like this, can you begin to see what types of support are needed and how to plan to provide these supports.

Try it and let us know what you think!

 

Why we learn from the Autistic Perspective

For many years, autism professional development has been dominated by professionals who have spent their time studying and learning about autism or working in the field of autism. Often it has been the professionals teaching the community about what they have learned about autism and what they think is useful for the autistic person’s development and support in the world. Whilst this has served the community to learn something about autism, it could be likened to someone wanting to learn about Italy and learning from someone who had studied Italian at University. If you really wanted to learn about Italy in it’s truest form, wouldn’t you look to learn from a person of Italian origin who had spent their lifetime in Italy?

Of recent times, we have started to see an important shift in the way that autism professional development is delivered and by whom it is delivered. Just as we would look to an Italian person to teach us about Italy, we are now seeing our communities look towards Autistic people to teach us about autism, with Autistic people stepping up to share their experiences and their expertise on what autism is really like from an insider’s view.

So why is it important that we learn from the autistic perspective? Well, just like the example of Italy above – there is no better way to learn than from someone who lives it. A person who knows autism from the inside will provide insight like no non-autistic person can. A person who lives autism will experience therapies and social environments like no non-autistic person can, and will have insight into the issues associated with stigma, misunderstanding and sensory overload like no non-autistic person can. Autistic people simply provide us with the authentic version of autism – one that doesn’t bring non-autistic ideas or beliefs with it.

Autistic people can tell us what works best and what has potential to cause stress and anxiety (and sadly trauma too). Autistic people can tell us how they best learn, how they best communicate and how they best like to interact with the world around them. They can show us best practise and they can show us how to openly embrace a world that caters for all types of people. They can show us where to open our minds and learn – if we’re open to it!

So next time you’re looking to learn more about autism, please ask yourself the question, “am I going directly to the source or am I learning about autism from an outsider’s perspective?” Autistic experiences and perspectives are the best professional development ‘gift’ you can give yourself.

Gathering Information – Using a Profile

To understand what a person needs that will provide the best possible support, it is important to find out as much about them as we can.

We recommend using a personal profile that establishes who the person is and what makes them tick (so to speak)! We can collate information that tells us about a person strengths and challenges as well as those areas where they may need the extra support.

Personal profiles are set out in an ‘easy to use’ format that helps identify particular areas of need, including sensory and behavioural support and the activities that are of a ‘special interest’ to them. We are often inundated with many different written reports and recommendations from therapists and specialists which can be quite tedious and time consuming to read. The profile enables this information to be reduced into a two page document highlighting the most relevant and straight forward information that can be skimmed over quickly when needing to refresh or check up on particular areas.

They are the perfect tool to use in an educational setting, particularly because students come into contact with many different teachers during the school day, especially in the secondary school setting. In addition to this, emergency or casual relief teachers are able to get a feel simply by reading over the profile.

One of the major benefits of keeping a personal profile of someone is that it can be shared with all of the people who care for or support the person. It provides a snapshot of information that outlines all that you need to know in order to plan and create an environment that will nurture and support the person.

We use this template for a lot of the work that we do as education consultants but also on a personal level with our own families.

It might be worth looking at all of the existing documents that you have and putting them into a format like this – it will help you to tie everything together!

Tell us about your experiences with personal profiles if you have used them before!

Creating a Team / Partnership approach – Support networks at School

The success of support systems for young people in school, often comes down to how well we work as teams, or our approach to working in partnership.

And by this we mean, how well the support staff work together and work alongside parents or other care givers – all focused on the same outcome, using strategies that complement each other, and working to keep lines of communication open and positive.

So how do we build positive communication and good support teams? Try some of the ideas below:

Listen

There is a difference between listening to respond and listening to understand – make sure when you’re working in partnerships that your listening is the ‘understanding’ variety. Part of this is also being open minded to the idea that things may be different to what you imagine and to what you have experienced in the past.

Acknowledge

Following on from listening is the idea of acknowledging how things might be impacting on the person being supported. Too often, it’s easy for us to shift the focus of what might be the cause of a problem, or of not wanting to admit that the environment is having a less than positive influence on a situation, or that strategies are no longer working effectively and may need to be adjusted. When we acknowledge these things, we open up to making positive changes and taking positive action.

It also helps to remember that acknowledging the impact of something does not mean that we have failed or that we are no good at what we do. It simply opens us up to learn and to do things better.

Ask

When we ask questions of each other, we learn and we find ways to do things better. Remember that no-one knows it all. Also, when we’re ‘asking’, remember that parents are the experts on their child – they see things in the raw and they’ll often be able to offer insights that professionals may never have the opportunity to discover otherwise.

Use Positive Language

Positive language goes a very long way in contributing to successful teams. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of thinking before we speak. We all make mistakes in how we say things at times, we all get tired and overwhelmed, and we all have moments where the words don’t come out how we wanted them to. But by taking a step back and reframing our language in a way that builds respect, trust and honesty, we all benefit.

So as you move into the new school year, take a moment to check in on your support teams, and maybe take a moment to reflect on how you can make them the best yet!