Communicative (cognitive) absolutism?

Today I find myself feeling angry and indignant. I’m not sure if the feelings are justified or if they a symptom of my being out of step with “best practice”.

In a speech pathology and AAC Facebook group, a practitioner posed the following question: “with non verbal students (adolescent age) who do not currently use any AAC functionally, would you start them out with the phases of PECS or start with learning core words with core word chart?”.

Respondents answered with their various supports to go for PECS or core words. Stepping out on a limb, I replied “Start with a relationship using their non verbal communication skills – honour what they can do now – and then build (while still honouring their capacity for human connection using nonsymbolic means)”.

A few weeks ago a story appeared in the newspaper about a man who had a severe disability and his mother. She talked about how he reacted to various activities and events. She talked about her love for him, and the difficulties of life long care. Noticeably, many social media respondents talked about how he should be given a way to communicate his own story, that this therapy or that therapy would enable his voice to be heard.

UNICEF recently posted it’s Inclusive Communication Module. The videos and resources contained great ideas for including people with disabilities. A voice over with video footage of a girl arranging plastic letters on a whiteboard said “she spells out, ‘I understand everything’”. The message is to see people with disabilities as capable.

On Facebook another image is posted, “Non verbal does not mean non intelligent or quiet”.

But what if a person is not intelligent? What if they are not waiting for the latest therapy to unlock all of their hidden thoughts? And what if a person has much deeper difficulties with connecting with people than can be addressed with PECS cards?

What if they have engaged in the interventions for years without success? (Yes, some may retort that the intervention hasn’t been correctly implemented, implemented long enough, and that it is not the fault of the student but the fault of the teacher).

What if the person can use pantomime, gesture or facial expressions to engage with people near to them? Or if their communication is through their change in body tension and alertness?

Do the Facebook, social media, and education package messages say that it is not acceptable to be a person who does not use or understand speech or any other symbolic communication form – that a person has only achieved communication when they’ve developed the use of symbols?

Are we revisiting the 70s when the only acceptable communication viewed by speech therapists was speech? In the 2010s, is the only acceptable communication to aspire to is speech or symbol use?

I am not saying to give up on communications interventions, or to swing the other way and not remind people that many people who can not use speech do have good understanding; I am arguing that we must be careful to first honour the ways a person can communicate and be especially careful to not present the arguments of capability in a way that devalues those who may not have such capabilities or intelligences. People communicate in many different ways.


  1. Well said Sheridan. In this urgent pay-for-every-minute age we so easily fall into cook book solutions.It is doing for not being with. Thanks for reminding us.

  2. I wholeheartedly agree Sheridan. And I had to learn this after being brainwashed early post 70s!
    Perhaps you are out of step in the sense that everyone else has to catch up with you.
    I always appreciate your thoughts.


    Anne Dixon | Clinician (Speech Pathologist)
    CPT1, Browns Plains Disability services | South East Region |
    Department of Communities, Child Safety and Disability Services
    T: 07 38847937 | F: 07 3884 7977

  3. Completely agree Sheridan. It’s so easy to get distracted into accepting only what might be recognised as functional or goal focussed communication that the crucial foundational and learning that underpins it gets forgotten…..maybe because it is difficult to record with tick in a box?

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