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Communication & Language


Communication is:

              the way we control our lives

              the way we make friends

              the way we become independent

              the way we make choices

              the way we express our feelings, thoughts and emotions


Communication may be: 

  • pre-intentional - saying or doing things without intending to affect those around them. This type of communication can be used by someone to calm themselves, focus themselves or as a reaction to an upsetting/fun experience 
  • intentional - saying or doing things with the purpose of sending a message to another person. This type of communication can be used to protest about something or to make requests. 

Intentional communication develops once a child has learned that their actions have an effect on other people. The move from pre-intentional communication to intentional communication is a big step for children with severe or profound learning needs.

Many children with profound and multiple learning disabilities (PMLD) do not communicate using formal communication like speech, symbols or signs. But this does not mean that they can’t communicate. Instead, they tend to rely on facial expressions, vocal sounds, body language and behaviour to communicate. Some children with PMLD may not have reached the stage of using intentional communication, and they may rely on staff to interpret their reactions to events and people.


Total Communication

We aim to create a ‘Total Communication Environment’ at Millstead. The total communication approach is about finding and using the right combination of communication methods for each person. This approach helps an individual to form connections, ensures successful interactions and supports information exchanges and conversations. (

We use a range of different formal and non-formal types of communication:

  • Non-verbal: including body movements, breathing patterns and eye pointing. Textures, smells, temperature, intensive interaction and routine can also support communication by allowing an individual to anticipate what is going to happen next.
  • Language-based communication: including speech, giving and receiving information in print and sign systems, including Makaton and on body sign or hand under hand sign.
  • Symbol systems: including using objects of reference and cues (real objects and object symbols),  Boardmaker,  Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), line drawings, pictures and photographs.

These methods of communication can be used in any combination and will be individual to the child. At Millstead, we work closely with each child (and their family and therapists) to identify preferred methods and how to maximise understanding and expression.

When looking at communication it is important to understand the two different types of language skills, expressive and receptive. How somebody expresses themselves can form a foundation for learning and offer a starting point on which to build communication development.


Expressive communication is when you are sending a message, this may be in response to another person or to initiate communication. Receptive communication is when you receive a message from another person. An individual’s expressive and receptive communication skills may not be the same. People will use a combination of the communication methods listed above, both expressively and receptively. For example, a person may receive and understand information in sign language and need symbols to help reinforce the meaning, but will use sign language and speech to express themselves.

The Millstead total communication approach values and uses all methods of communication so that every child can communicate, understand and be understood. Communication is the ‘golden thread’ that runs throughout the whole curriculum.



We recognise that over a quarter of the school day is spent in transition. Helping our children to understand, anticipate and cope with transition is therefore extremely important. At Millstead we use a range of transition supports to help children understand what is happening next; these include visual supports, music cues, tactile cues, object cues and verbal instructions.



The SCERTS® Model is a research-based educational approach and multidisciplinary framework that directly addresses the core challenges faced by children and persons with ASD and related disabilities, and their families. SCERTS® focuses on building competence in Social Communication, Emotional Regulation and Transactional Support as the highest priorities that must be addressed in any program.

The aspirational goal for all children is to become confident and competent communicators so that they are able to successfully participate in social activities. Children who are able to communicate effectively have access to increased opportunities for play and learning and are able to participate more fully in enjoyable social relationships.

Social Communication skills needed to participate in learning and play include:

•        Understanding intentions

•        Expressing preferences, needs and emotions

•        Sharing ideas and playing with others

•        Communicating for a variety of purposes

•        Initiating interactions

•        Imaginative play

•        Relating to peers

•        Understanding routines and expectations.


Communication - Specialist Strategies and Interventions

Intensive Interaction

is an approach designed to help people at early levels of development, people who have autism, people who have severe, profound or complex learning difficulties. Intensive Interaction works on early interaction abilities - how to enjoy being with other people - to relate, interact, know, understand and practice communication routines.

Multi-Sensory Cues

Objects of Reference are objects that have a special meaning to the individual. They are used immediately before an event or transition to a new location. Objects of reference can support expression, comprehension, memory, anticipation and choice making. Objects of reference can stimulate more than one sense.

Musical cues are used to terminate one activity or begin another.

Touch cues are positive on-body touches to prepare the children for what is to come next.

Augmentative and Alternative Communication (High or low tech)

  • Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) uses picture symbols and is designed to teach functional communication skills with an initial focus on spontaneous communication. 
  • Makaton teaches language and communication skills through a combination of speech, signs and graphic symbols.
  • Communication boards and communication books, where the child can point to words, photos and/or symbols.
  • Communication cue cards, used primarily with children who are verbal, can be a reminder of what to say and provide an alternative means to communication in stressful situations.
  • Conversation books, which can use text, pictures or photographs to support conversation.
  • Voice output communication aids, eg BIGmack, generate digitised speech when the person presses a symbol or button. The child will need an understanding of cause and effect to use these devices.

Visual Supports - Symbols or Photographs

Whilst some children may need the actual object for reference eg: showing them their nappy to indicate going to the bathroom to be changed, others can use a photograph or symbol in a generalised way to indicate this.

Staff wear a set of photographs showing the various rooms and locations the children need to access; this is a standardised set with the names of the room on, ensuring consistency throughout the pupils’ time in the school regardless of staff they come across or changes in classrooms. Staff add additional photo/symbols which they feel necessary to support individual pupils.


Signing (Makaton or On Body)

Makaton is a unique language programme that uses symbols, signs and speech to enable people to communicate. It supports the development of essential communication skills such as attention and listening, comprehension, memory, recall and organisation of language and expression.

Body signing is a tactile communication system designed to develop language for children who have no, or extremely limited, expressive language. Embedding the signs as part of the communication in clear daily routines should allow the child gradually to make sense of what could otherwise be chaotic and fragmented experiences.


Attention Autism

Attention Autism is an intervention model designed by Gina Davies, Specialist Speech and Language Therapist. It aims to develop natural and spontaneous communication through the use of visually based and highly motivating activities. The programme progresses through a series of stages, building on each skill level. Each new stage is introduced when the group is ready to expand attention skills.




Language allows us to share our ideas, thoughts, and feelings with others.

Language development is important as language consists of a set of social standards that show comprehension of meanings behind words, putting words together in a sentence in order to communicate and understanding commands, directions and information given by others.
Children need to develop language skills to relate with others and to grow into a person who can socially interact with others through life.

The learning environment is the one of the most important factors that contributes to children’s early language development along with effective communication from adults. At Millstead we aim to provide a stimulating and rich learning environment to play a key factor in providing early language development opportunities. Children should be exposed to words, sounds, rhythm, visual supports, verbal and non-verbal communication during every day practice.

Most of the children at Millstead are delayed in their language. They may use some of the following to communicate: 

  • stilling 
  • gestures 
  •  crying 
  • vocalisations
  • eye contact
  •  taking your hand to the item they want 
  •  looking at the item they want 
  •  reaching
  • using pictures, photographs, symbols
  • distressed behaviour 
  • echolalia (the repetition of other people's words). 



Language Partner Stage: children communicate for a purpose using symbols, signs and/or words.

Conversational Partner Stage: children use words, phrases and sentences. They begin to learn how to engage fully in conversations. Children begin to develop an understanding of the feelings and thoughts of others.


Language - Specialist Strategies and Interventions

Lego Therapy

Lego therapy is a play-based intervention which focuses on developing collaborative play skills.

Lego therapy works on key areas of social interaction, such as; turn taking, listening, initiation, eye contact, problem solving and sharing.

In addition to this it works on language concepts such as; size, prepositions and colours.

Within a therapy group an adult will set the ‘ground rules’ with children and facilitate if necessary. Each child is given a role. These are a builder, supplier and engineer. In addition to this there may be a director role too. Each role contributes towards the success of the Lego model being made.

Language and complexity of Lego models can be easily adapted to meet the need of the group.

Colourful Semantics

Colourful semantics is an approach created by Alison Bryan. It is aimed at helping children to develop their grammar but it is rooted in the meaning of words (semantics).

Colourful semantics reassembles sentences by cutting them up into their thematic roles and then colour codes them.

The approach has 4 key colour coded stages. There are further stages for adverbs, adjectives, conjunctions and negatives.

Social Stories

Social stories are short descriptions of a particular situation, event, or activity, which include specific information about what to expect in that situation and why.

Social stories present information in a literal, 'concrete' way, which may improve a child's understanding of a previously difficult or ambiguous situation or activity. The presentation and content can be adapted to meet different children's needs.

They can help with sequencing (what comes next in a series of activities) and 'executive functioning' (planning and organising).

Blank Level Questioning

Blank’s Levels of Questioning is a questioning framework developed by Marion Blank, a renowned psychologist. There are four levels of questioning which move from simple, concrete questions to more difficult, abstract questions. Blank’s questions encourage development of general language and vocabulary as well as skills in comprehension, reasoning, inferencing, predicting and problem solving (Blank, 2000).


Research confirms that children with autism tend to have a visually based learning style. The TEACCH Autism Programme aims to facilitate learning through a visual and structured teaching approach.

The key idea is to teach children in a way that makes the most of their strengths and works around their areas of difficulty. The teaching approach is very structured and uses clear schedules that children can understand.

Core Language

Research has shown that communication supports which are primarily noun and descriptor-based restrict to requesting and labelling. Without core vocabulary we impose a ceiling on language development.

Core language enables children to learn words and phrases that are transferrable to a range of situations and settings.