Learning to communicate - children with complex needs

Ways to help your child

You will have been helping your child's communication since birth without thinking - by responding to them and interacting with them. However, knowing about some approaches developed by professionals can be helpful.

If your child uses limited or no speech, there are many ways you can help your child, including:

Using touch

  • signing and on-body signing, for children with little or no sight
  • using objects, pictures and symbols
  • using electronic and computer equipment.
  • Help from a speech and language therapist. It's very important to get support from a qualified speech and language therapist if you are going to use an alternative method (other than speech) to communicate with your child. They could be highly helpful to you and your child.

You can ask your GP, health visitor, nursery or school staff to refer you to a speech and language therapist. If you prefer, you can refer your child yourself. Ask your NHS Primary Care Trust (PCT) for the telephone number of your local NHS speech and language therapy service.

For your PCT's contact details:

You can also use an independent speech and language therapist. Search for one on the Association of Speech and Language Therapists website or telephone them on 01494 48 83 06.

Using touch

Establishing communication with your child early on is very important. Using touch is a great way to do this. You could play simple, repetitive games like "Round and round the garden" and "This little piggy went to market".
After a couple of goes, wait for your child to do something, then respond to what your child does - they may be telling you to play again. Or respond by making their movement into the next game. The point is to help your child get the idea that they have to take the lead, which is vital in communicating.
As your child gets older, you could adapt this approach to other games involving anticipating noises, tapping or lines from familiar songs.

Using objects

Many children associate objects with ideas before they start to talk. In schools, objects are often used to help children understand their timetable, and to anticipate what is going to happen during the day. Using objects in this way is called Objects of Reference. If your child has limited understanding or doesn't use speech at all, you could use objects to talk about events, activities and choices.

For example, you can use a cup to show that a drink is coming, or a nappy to show that it's time for a nappy change. If you put together a small tray of objects like this, your child can use it to ask for a drink, tell you that they're hungry or tired, or want to do a favourite activity. "Objects of Reference" by A Ockelford - buy from our online shop.

Use a "communication passport"

Your child's school may create a communication passport - a small booklet written from your child's point of view. For example, it might say:
"I can see you if you stand on my right. I need objects to be presented to me from the right. I often need help to hold things, and like to be introduced to new experiences very gradually. If I like something I smile and rock backwards and forwards. To tell you I don't like something I make a noise and push away with my arms."

How to use a communication passport

Anyone meeting your child for the first time can read the communication passport. They will quickly know something about your child's likes, dislikes and how they behave.
You may find it helpful to use the communication passport when you go to hospital appointments, or get involved with new activities or groups. It may be particularly useful if you decide to access respite care, where someone else looks after your child for short periods.
More about learning to communicate

Some of the ideas on this page are inspired by the book "Which way? A guide for parents of children with multiple disabilities" (RNIB, 2003).

Emotional support

It's common to experience strong feelings about sight loss and there will probably be times when you wish you had some emotional support. We can help, talk to us.

Talk to somebody