We spoke to Deb Burmester, a Senior Speech Pathologist at CPL, about what it means to live with complex communication needs and what kind of supports are out there.
What makes people struggle to communicate verbally?
There are a lot of things that can cause this. It can be that the muscles used for developing speech sounds aren’t working properly or are just weak; or someone may not have the breath support to power their speech. There can also be delays in language ability, which has an impact on their ability to put words together.
How can this affect day-to-day life?
It really restricts their participation in daily living. Communication is required for interaction and engagement in all situations, so not being able to communicate well or at all affects every activity.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about people with complex communication needs?
One of the most common misconceptions is if somebody can’t talk, they must not be able to understand. This is a huge misunderstanding, as although this may be the case for some, a lot of people can hear and understand everything.
What is speech therapy and how can it help?
We can support all clients whether they have verbal communication or little to no verbal communication. Our job is to look at what supports we can provide to allow people to still communicate and have a voice.
When we’re thinking about supporting someone with complex communication needs, there are so many options out there. People come to a Speech Pathologist to explore the options. We look at different types of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC). Some of the low-tech options are using keyword signs, using picture symbols and photos, and personalised communication books. Then there’s a whole world of high-tech options like dedicated speech-generating devices and mainstream devices like iPads with apps. What we bring is our knowledge of all the options out there, and we try to find something that works for each individual person and their family.
What are some specific outcomes that people can get from speech therapy?
Speech Therapy gives people a voice, whether it’s verbal or not. We can teach people to talk, read and write, which gives them the ability to participate in whatever is next in life. Depending on age, that might be school, work or getting involved in the community. Early intervention is essential, so we do try to get people into speech therapy as soon as possible, which can set them up to participate and succeed in life.
When communicating with someone who has complex communication needs, what should we keep in mind?
The most important thing is to treat them like any other person. Some people may slow down their speech, raise their voice, or simplify their language when talking to people with communication needs, but this isn’t always necessary. Also invest in learning their system so you know how to communicate with them. Try to get down on their level, eye-to-eye, and have a meaningful conversation. Find out what they like, that’s when you’ll get the most interaction.
What support is available?
Children and adults can see a CPL Speech Pathologist at their local office to work on personal goals that are identified and meaningful to you and your family. CPL also offers some other great initiatives. There’s CPL’s Camp Have a Chat which is the only initiative of its kind in Queensland. It supports children with complex communication needs. It is a three-day program where children and their families can learn and connect over the latest communication methods and technologies in signs, symbols, gestures and electronic communication as a community. Most importantly, it’s an opportunity to express themselves in a supportive group environment while making new friends.
We also have CPL’s Let’s Talk Day, which is an event run for people with complex communication needs and gives them the opportunity to chat with assistive technology experts about what is available to them. You can have a go at the latest speech-generating devices, communication apps and books, and explore access technologies like eye gaze and switch access.
Plus, we have CPL’s Communication Board Service where we offer equipment and aids to clients with complex communication needs. Communication books and boards are visual aids that allow people to communicate exactly what they are thinking and feeling. These are tailor-made to suit each person’s needs and goals.