CHILD AND YOUTH CARE NETWORK
5 NOVEMBER 2002
Many autistic children have problems communicating. Pictures can help them to learn how to speak and communicate effectively.
Pictures help autistic children speak
An educational programme called the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), which was developed in the United States 12 years ago, has helped to transform the lives of thousands of children. The Anna Sullivan Centre in Lima uses PECS to help people with autism and learning difficulties.
Teachers urge students to communicate through pictures. For instance, if a child wants a drink they will present a picture of a drink. hen kids didn't know how to talk they were very frustrated that they could not communicate After a while, they are able to construct simple sentences using pictures. They are then taught to associate the pictures with words and many go on to speak.
The centre's founder, Liliana Mayo, says PECS has helped many people to learn to communicate. "This system has offered them the possibility of expressing what they want, how they need, how they feel, even if they are happy. But if they feel pain too," she said.
The programme has made a big difference in many people's lives. "It has made a big difference because many children used to have a lot of behavioural problems - crying, screaming and hitting," she said.
"Once they start to show us with the pictures what they want, their life changes not only for the child but for the family.
"Families often say I didn't understand what they wanted to ask me." She added: "The most important aspect of any human being is their voice and PECS is like the voice for the children. When kids didn't know how to talk they were very frustrated that they could not communicate."
Around 350 students, all with varying degrees of learning disability, attend the centre each day. Many could not speak or communicate in any meaningful way before they started.
Milagros Rodrigues said she had seen dramatic changes in her daughter Camilla. She's learning to dress herself, she's learning to communicate through the PECS. Before using PECS Camilla was able to repeat words in Spanish, but she didn't understand them," she said.
"The traditional system of language therapy was not successful with her. She could repeat words, she was able to repeat the word mesa or table but when I told her go to the mesa, she didn't know the meaning of mesa."
For Camilla, Spanish was like a second language, even though it is her mother tongue. Now, armed with a scrap-book full of pictures and a sticky ruler on which to pin the appropriate image, she can tell the difference between, say, a sandwich and an orange. Most importantly, she can now tell other people which one she would rather eat.
Successful as PECS has been, it is not appropriate for all people with autism. Those that can already talk, for example, do not need it.
Similarly, it is not just children with autism that benefit from PECS. Elsa Dawson, a Briton living in Peru, comes to the centre with her seven-year old daughter Elisa who has Angelman syndrome. Her symptoms include communication difficulties, imbalance and a short attention span. Elsa had tried using PECS before, but with little success.
"We've only been at the Anne Sullivan for two or three months with Elisa, but the progress that she's shown is really incredible," said Elsa. "She's learning to dress herself, she's learning to communicate through the PECS system, she's learning to use the toilet, how to sit quietly in the classroom.
"And although she's not really very happy, we think she's enjoying the fact that she's learning these skills, which unfortunately she wasn't learning at the special schools she was at in England."
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