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Efforts to Increase Communication Skills

I completed my training as a speech and language therapist in 1979 and several years later worked full-time in a special school which included children with autism. This school was a forerunner in the policy of including children with significant disabilities into mainstream schools.

For a number of years, I worked in the voluntary sector supporting families of children with special needs by setting up services, campaigning, fundraising and providing information. This experience, from the ‘other side’ of a professional perspective, was invaluable. I learned that rarely are parents asked by professionals for what they would want for their child but rather are offered a fixed ‘bag’ of intervention, which if they questioned would place them in the category of ‘difficult parents’.

In 1991, I worked in a special school in Calcutta, India, training staff in developing children’s communication. It was at this time that I learned about Facilitated Communication (FC), eventually visiting Rosemary Crossley and Jane Remington-Gurney in Australia before returning to the UK to develop my interest. I approached specialist speech and language therapists in autism to tell them about FC and was met with a refusal to even discuss the topic and an attitude that my lack of expertise in the field made it inappropriate for me to have an opinion. The first step to improve my academic knowledge of autism was to study for a Master’s degree in Human Communication before embarking on a Ph.D. which gave me the opportunity to further research FC. My study examined the vocabulary use of 10 FC users to look for evidence of ‘individual signatures’.

I worked for four years managing a FC research and practice project, in conjunction with Dr. Andrew Grayson, before eventually joining him as a researcher and lecturer at the Communication and Inclusion Research Unit (CIRU) at Nottingham Trent University. I currently work part-time as an academic and continue to practice, consult and train in the field of communication, AAC and FC. Currently, research is looking at teaching pointing to children with autism, both independent and facilitated, to discover to what extent this will lead to an increase in communication skills.

The Communication and Inclusion Research Unit is run jointly by Nottingham City Children’s Services and the Division of Psychology at Nottingham Trent University, UK. We comprise a small team of academics, practitioners and researchers with particular interests in autism and other ‘learning disabilities’. When teaching undergraduate and Master’s level students about autism we inform students about the dominant models and ways of viewing the autism spectrum, such as theories of central coherence and executive dysfunction disorders. However, we place more stress on the context in which the person with autism is viewed, their possible barriers to learning such as sensory or motor differences, and the importance of working from strengths. Our backgrounds in research and practice of FC help us to demonstrate to the students the difference between competence and performance, and to encourage them to question assessments and observations in their future practice.

The CIRU is also concerned with dissemination of learning disabilities research, both our own and other people’s. To this end, we have strong local networks of researchers and practitioners and organise conferences and seminars. We are aware of how difficult it can be for practitioners to find out about new ways of working with people with autism and the complexities of altering their practice accordingly. We see one of our roles as being to assist in this process. At the moment we are involved in an action research project looking at developing pointing for communication in a group of 12-year-old children attending a school for those with autism. In this project, we work alongside teachers and teaching assistants, showing them new ways of working and simultaneously measuring their effectiveness.

In addition to local networks we are part of national and European groups, particularly in connection with research and practice in FC. The main interests of these groups are to find ways to evaluate and standardise best practice in the use of FC, in order that it can be practiced more widely where appropriate.

Anne Emerson, Ph.D.
Researcher and Lecturer, Communication and Inclusion Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University

The views expressed in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the views of the NLM Family Foundation.

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