SENCO Week looks at the different types of communication and interaction difficulties and how SENCOs can provide effective support

Among those who may take a little longer to settle in to the new school year will be children and young people who have difficulties with communication and interaction. Here we take a look at the kinds of barriers they may encounter and how you as SENCO can support colleagues in identifying and understanding any problems.

See also useful classroom strategies for teachers to take on board.

Communication and interaction
All educational settings are heavily dependent upon communication, both verbal and non-verbal, and for those children who have difficulties in this area, school (and the world at large) can be a frustrating, confusing and frightening place. The processes involved in language development are also essential for supporting ‘thinking’ in general, and this is another reason why communication and interaction skills are so important.

Communication and interaction difficulties can affect children and young people with:

  • speech and language delay/impairments/disorders
  • specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia and dyspraxia
  • hearing impairment 
  • autistic spectrum disorders
  • moderate, severe or profound learning difficulties.

For practical purposes, children’s communication needs are usually considered under two main headings: speech and language difficulties (SLD) and autistic spectrum disorders (ASD).

Speech and language difficulties
As many as 250,000 children under the age of five, and a similar number in the 5-16 age range, have a speech and language impairment. For some, this is a delay; a child’s language is developing, but more slowly than usual. This may be connected with having ‘glue ear’ in early childhood, or may be a consequence of poor listening and attention skills. With appropriate intervention, these children can make good progress and catch up with their peers. For others, the difficulty is more complex.

Pupils in this category may have difficulties in the following areas:

  • The production of speech: some children understand what is said to them, but are unable to use words to make themselves understood. They may have difficulty in making the movements which produce speech (dyspraxia), or suffer from dysfluency, or stammering.
  • Finding words and joining them together, in the right order (sequencing) to make complex sentences. This may indicate a problem with short-term memory.
  • Understanding and responding to the verbal communication of others.
  • Being able to put thoughts and ideas into words.
  • Processing information and responding appropriately (semantic pragmatic disorder)

Autistic spectrum disorders (ASD)
It is estimated that six in every thousand children have this type of disorder (four times as many boys as girls).  At one end of the spectrum are children of normal intelligence, with mild autistic tendencies, perhaps seen by others as ‘slightly odd’; at the other, are those with profound learning difficulties and severe autism who are likely to attend a special school. Autism is characterised by the ‘triad of impairments’:

Difficulties with social interaction – unable to understand other people’s feelings and behaviour; may seem aloof, and behave in an ‘odd’ way – using inappropriate language, touching other people inappropriately, or being aggressive; unable to ‘read’ social situations and behave appropriately; can become distressed and confused.

Poor communication skills –  in terms of both verbal and non-verbal communication (eg eye contact, facial expression, gesture and body language). Language used may be repetitive and/or learned phrases from television ads etc. Some children may appear to have good expressive language, but still have difficulties in understanding –  especially where figurative language is used. Sarcasm and irony are generally not understood.

Inability to use imagination – this affects every area of thought, language and behaviour. Children may develop repetitive and/or obsessive behaviours and are often more interested in, and comfortable with, objects than people. They need a strong sense of routine in order to make sense of their world, and interruptions and changes can cause distress.

In addition, these children may have a sensitivity to noise, smell, taste, touch or visual stimuli.

Asperger syndrome is a condition affecting those at the high ability end of the autistic spectrum. Children may speak (often in a monotonous or exaggerated tone of voice) knowledgably and at great length about topics which interest them, but have significant difficulties with social communication, turn taking and joining in.

David Fulton/Routledge Publishers produces a wide range of books for teachers, teaching assistants and speech and language therapists, including Working with Secondary Students with Language Difficulties, Mary Brent et al; Supporting Children with Communication Disorders; Gill Thompson; Autistic Spectrum Disorders; Northumberland CC.

I CAN: national educational charity for children and young people with speech and language difficulties. Involved in the integration of speech and language therapy and education, promoting collaborative practice in all aspects of the management of children and young people with these difficulties:

Jessica Kingsley publishers have a comprehensive range of books on all aspects of ASD

National Autistic Society (NAS)  UK charity concerned with the education of pupils with autism

Scottish Society for Autism: leading provider of services for people with autism in Scotland. Also facilitates the Autism Alliance for Scotland, which includes the leading regional autism support groups across Scotland

This e-bulletin issue was first published in September 2007

About the author: Linda Evans is the author of SENCO Week. She was a teacher/SENCO/adviser/inspector, before joining the publishing world. She now works as a freelance writer, editor and part-time college tutor.