Every Student

Understanding Communication

Communication is fundamental to the teaching of English for students with special needs. The English learning continuum has been developed acknowledging the following complex aspects of communication:


Receptive Communication (the receiving of a message)

Receptive communication is a student’s understanding of communication. This includes their ability to understand and respond to speech, visual symbols such as photos, signs, pictures, objects and other prompts such as pointing, touching objects and facial expression.


Expressive Communication (the sending of a message)

Expressive communication is a student’s way of communicating with other people. It includes how they express themselves (speech, signing, visual symbols) and the purpose of their communication (to request, to make choices, to make comments, to ask questions).


Pragmatic Functions (the purpose of language)

Pragmatic functions are the ways a person uses language to interact with others. Pragmatic functions include:


-        Requesting objects, actions and/or attention

-        Denying/rejecting/protesting

-        Greeting

-        Expressing feelings

-        Asking and answering questions

-        Giving information

-        Making comments 


Communication and Behaviour

Communication is essentially a social behaviour. Social interactions cannot take place without communication of some sort – verbal or non-verbal (Autistic Children’s Association Of Queensland, 1997). Communication at a basic level is usually for:


-        Acquisition

-        Avoidance/escape

-        Social belonging

-        Stress/anxiety

-        Attention


“It is essential for students to communicate in whatever method is appropriate for them as it enables them to exert some control over their environment and to interact with the people with whom they come in contact.” (Board of Studies, 1997, p. 5). Communication is fundamental to all areas of the curriculum and should be considered as a cross curriculum concern.


All student behaviour should be considered to be potentially communicative regardless of the level of complexity.


People communicate for different reasons in order to achieve a variety of goals or outcomes. It is when those communication needs are unmet, that negative or challenging behaviours can occur. The challenge for teachers of non-verbal students with high support needs is to correctly interpret the communicative intent of a behaviour.


The more communicative functions a student can use, the more control they have over their environment and the more involvement they have in meaningful social exchanges with other people.  The functions used by students with very early communication skills tend to focus on protesting, requesting and attracting attention and/or fulfilling sensory needs.


Many students may use inappropriate or challenging behaviour as a means of gaining or avoiding specific situations. If these behaviours have been effective in obtaining the student’s desired outcome, there is little incentive for them to change (Board of Studies, 1997). Therefore, it is imperative that teachers always attribute a communicative meaning to students’ behaviour.


Communication and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Students with ASD typically display significant impairments in three areas, known as the Triad of Impairments (2006, Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing, para.1):


1. Social interaction

2. Communication

3. Behaviour (limited interests and repetitive behaviours) 

Verbal communication can be difficult for students with ASD. They may need assistance in sequencing activities and putting abstract thoughts in a more concrete manner. Frequently there is a mismatch between the receptive and expressive skills of students with ASD who are verbal. Comprehension difficulties can be less obvious, but just as severe, in those who use complex sentence structures.


Although some students may have an extensive vocabulary, communication difficulties are usually present in their receptive and expressive language. This also impacts on non-verbal language, such as social cues and body language. Many students with ASD have unresponsive facial expressions and vocal tone and have great difficulty reading faces and emotions in others.  They may appear to have impaired comprehension or poor listening skills, especially when there are other distractions.  They may continually repeat words, phrases or sounds in or out of context. Often students with ASD have difficulty generalising learnt concepts e.g. a student may be able to recognise a community symbol in the classroom but not in the community.


All these factors can significantly impact on the capacity of students with ASD to engage socially and academically. Consistent implementation of successful communication systems across all environments (home, school, respite settings) is crucial to success.