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Total Communication

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Adapting our communication and creating a total communication environment

Before we work and communicate with children with learning difficulties or special needs, we need to be aware of our own communication skills and how we communicate. As skilled communicators we need to have an awareness of the difficulties that children with special needs have with communication. We need to adapt our communication and the communication environment to give these children the optimum opportunity to understand and communicate.


There are a number of key guidelines we need to be aware of when working with children with communication delay. We need to look beyond speech and think of communication in a broader sense – what we call Total Communication. With total communication we focus on every possible modality to express our message and help the information be understood and processed. Conversely, we also give the child with special needs as many resources and opportunities to convey their message in a way that is understood.

See Key Guidelines in aiding communication in a Total Communication environment for some easy ways to improve communication.


Total Communication

What is total communication?
This is a holistic view of communication, often using a range of modalities or even thinking “outside the box” to create a system of communication that works for an individual.

Other definitions of Total Communication include:

  • Using all means possible to communicate and/or receive a message
  • Creating a best fit for a child to communicate, optimizing his skills and reducing his impairments
  • A blanket that covers all aspects of the child’s abilities ensuring that the child has access to a means of communication
  • Facilitating and assisting each child by providing supports and opportunities to communicate and be included and optimise their potential

Here some examples of modalities that may be used in a Total Communication approach. This is not a complete list. Every individual is different and some may use a range of these modalities.

  • Touch cues – Touch cues are a way of giving blind/deaf individuals information about what is going to happen.
  • Texture cues / Objects of reference – Through the use of objects or tactile symbols, individuals can build up a wide range of communication options.
  • Braille – This system was devised by Louis Braille in 1821 and is a method widely used by blind people to read and write.
  • Environmental cues – This is a general description for many cues that are around us. They can include pictures, logos, colours, noise and texture.
  • Facial expression, gesture and body language – These are some of the more obvious examples of non-verbal communication but are important because they carry so much meaning and can be used very successfully by people with communication difficulties.
  • Signing Systems – There are a number of different signing systems which vary greatly in complexity.
  • Pictures / Visual Strategies – Visuals and pictures can work for many individuals with communication difficulties. Visual strategies can be used in a multitude of ways to enhance understanding and expression.
  • Print – Using a printed word or recognisable symbol system can be used when other forms of communication fail.
  • Assistive Technology / Communication (AAC) – Assistive technology is a generic term that includes assistive, adaptive, and rehabilitative devices with a focus on facilitating communication.
  • Speech, Voice and Language – Many people with communication impairment are still able to use their voice and speech. Remember to pitch your language at a level that the listener will understand and give them plenty of time to process the information.
  • Eye-gaze and Partner Assisted Scanning – Some of the newest technology available to access a computers or communication machine is via eye-gaze. You can also use eye-gaze effectively without expensive technology by using a communication partner and an E-TRAN frame, or visuals.

For a greater explanation of some of the above strategies see our Adult Total Communication page

Total communication encompasses a host of different ways to communicate, many of which we use all day long without thinking about (gesture, touch, environmental cues etc). The important thing to note here is that by using a combination of different communication modalities you can greatly increase the effectiveness of the message. The speaker will be giving more cues to get their message across, and the listener will have more cues to help them understand the message.

For more information about special needs and other communication difficulties, and ideas and strategies to help communication, see our Resources, or for more detailed and specific fact-sheets with helpful hints about Special Needs, Total Communication and Assistive Technology Options go to the Downloads section.


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