Everyone Communicates

We all communicate everyday with those around us. We may use a spoken language to interact with others, or we may use other forms of communication. For instance, you might raise your hand in class to communicate to the teacher that you have something to say or wave at someone across the road to say hello. We also communicate to others how we are feeling in a variety of ways. We smile when we are happy and may frown when upset. We laugh and cry. We don’t even have to say a word and others around us can sometimes guess exactly how we are feeling!

Students with disabilities also communicate in a variety of ways. Their communication can be symbolic or pre-symbolic. In symbolic communication, specific forms represent something else. For example, the word “ball” represents something that is round and that children might play with. The word can be spoken, signed or represented by a picture. Most students with disabilities are able to communicate through symbolic communication. They may have a vocabulary of spoken words, may use sign language, may use picture communication cards, a program or application that aids their communication, or a combination of these forms.

Other students with disabilities may use pre-symbolic communication. They have not yet learned to use, and sometimes do not yet understand words or symbols. They rely on their bodies or the environment around them to communicate. Some forms of pre-symbolic communication include body movements or changes in muscle tone, vocalizations, facial expressions, orientation (looking toward or away from someone or something), touching, manipulating, or moving another person, manipulating objects or using objects to interact with others. Students may exhibit one or more of these types of communication. Unfortunately, when a student cannot always get his communication across to others (either symbolically or pre-symbolically), the student’s frustration can result in a “behavior” problem. Imagine how you would feel if no one understood the really important things you were trying to tell them!

For students who use pre-symbolic communication, it is important to always be aware of their behavior and what it could possibly mean. A student might take your hand and pull you to the door, possibly indicating that he wants to go out. Another student might turn his head when offered a drink, possibly indicating that he does not want a drink or does not like what is being offered. A student may be crying, possibly indicating that she is in pain, fearful, or disliking what is happening to her (or around her). 

Look at the following document and consider   why it is important to guarantee the right to communicate for people with   disabilities. When you read this document, what most came to your mind? Write   down your thoughts in a full-page response.

Steven Hawking is a famous physicist, and also a very interesting person. He has accomplished much in his life, and due to a disease has lost his ability to communicate with others verbally. He now uses a very sophisticated communication system that enables him to get even the most complex ideas across to people.

Look at the following links to learn more about his life.  Describe how Steven Hawking’s life has changed in terms of his ability to communicate.

Many people think that Steven Hawking is one of the smartest people in the world, but it is important to consider that he was able show everyone what he could do before he lost the ability to speak. He did not stop being “smart” because he had to start using a device to communicate, and as such he has not lost the support and admiration of the scientific community. Consider, though, that some people do not have the opportunity to portray their abilities through spoken communication. Much of what our society defines as being smart really is about the ability to use spoken or written language effectively. Does that mean that the communication of people (like Steven Hawking) who cannot speak in a traditional sense is less important? What about the pre-symbolic communication of some people with severe disabilities who do not have an alternative means of communication? If we know that everyone truly communicates, what does that mean for you as a peer buddy in your day-to- day support for a student who may not talk clearly or communicate at a level that is typical for other high school students? You may need to pay closer attention to the forms of communication that are available to that student, and really try to understand what that student is saying to you.

Sometimes, even students with symbolic communication have difficulty accessing it and using it in stressful situations. Read this letter written by the mother of a child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder about her son’s difficulty communicating at school, and the ways (which are not always apparent) in how he does communicate:

Echolalia, or delayed or repeated speech that often appears to be totally out of context, can have often have a “hidden” meaning if we search for it. You can read more about echolalia here:

Write a piece explaining how you would use this information to better understand “Bud” if he were your peer buddy.