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Children and young people with learning disabilities have a range of communication needs. Some communicate using speech, others using body language or facial expressions and some need support to communicate.

There are various methods and tools that support communication. Some of them use pictures, gestures or pointing while others help with more complexcommunication difficulties.

Watch Mencap’s video to understand why communication is important to people with learning disabilities:

Tools and types of communication

Find out about different types of communication and any training we provide at Leeds Mencap.


Makaton is a language programme that uses signs, symbols and speech to give different options for people when communicating. Using signs can help people who don’t use speech, and symbols can help people who have limited speech or prefer to sign.

Makaton can allow people with communication difficulties to express themselves independently which can also ease frustration and give them confidence as they develop language skills.

Watch Mencap’s video explaining what Makaton is:

At Leeds Mencap, we sometimes run ‘Introduction to Makaton’ courses. They’re fun and friendly sessions designed to help you learn more about how Makaton can help children to communicate and we’ll event show you some signs and symbols to use at home. Get in touch with us to find about upcoming dates: 0113 232 1331.

The Makaton charity have a library of free resources for personal use including signs and symbols for events, songs, and stories. Make an account to access their resources here.

Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)

PECS is a technique that supports communication skills using pictures. It’s an easy programme to follow that starts with simple pictures to communicate needs and builds to the person forming complex sentences.

There are 6 PECS stages that should be introduced slowly:

  1. How to communicate – The person learns to exchange single pictures for items or activities they really want.
  2. Distance and persistence – Continuing with single pictures, the person learns to use this in different places, with different people or with more consistency.
  3. Picture discrimination – The person learns to select from two or more pictures to ask for their favourite things. These are placed in a communication book, often a ring binder with Velcro strips, where pictures are stored and easily removed for communication.
  4. Sentence structure – The person learns to construct simple sentences on a detachable sentence strip using an ‘I want’ picture followed by a picture of the item being requested.
  5. Answering questions – The person uses the detachable sentence strip to answer questions using an ‘I want’ picture followed by their answer.
  6. Commenting – Now the person is taught to comment using the sentence strip to start sentences with ‘I see’, ‘I hear’, ‘I feel’ and ‘It is’ in response to questions such as:
    • What do you see?
    • What do you hear?
    • What is it?

If you think an alternative communication aide would benefit your child speak to their school or nursery. They should be able to support you to introduce this, and ensure consistency across settings.

Objects of Reference

An object of reference is a whole physical object, or part of an object that you hold or touch to represent a person, an object, a place, an activity, or an idea. Objects of reference are a useful way to communicate if you have sight loss, hearing loss, multi-sensory impairment, autism spectrum disorder, learning disability or short/long term memory difficulties. Objects of reference are helpful for parents, family members, friends, therapists, and school staff to use to communicate with people with complex disabilities. It’s good to start with a few objects for activities that happen often or for people you see all the time, regular repetition with a few objects makes it easier to make the connections between the object and its meaning.

Visual Timetables

A visual timetable, timeline or visual activity schedule is a way of supporting a child to predict what will happen next. It enables children to know the things that must happen first, before they can do the activity that they are often focused on. It helps children who have difficulty understanding languages as it gives them extra processing time. Using symbols and visual timelines as part of a multisensory teaching approach helps children become more independent. It benefits children’s thinking skills by making other people’s thoughts, feelings and intentions more concrete. It puts less demand on remembering and allows more resources for thinking about the task and identifying the ‘goal’ of the task where it might be hard to complete.

How do I start using a communication aid?

  1. Meet your child where they are. The introduction of a new system will take lots of patience, consistency and repetition. Start with just one or two motivating symbols or signs to engage your child in the system, and introduce new symbols or signs gradually.
  2. Remember communication is a two-way street. These aids aren’t only to help you communicate with your child, but for your child to communicate with you!
  3. Consider how to make the system as helpful and motivating for your child as possible. For example, accompany visual timetables with a sand timer, or encourage your child to remove completed tasks from the board themselves.
  4. Always accompany these with language! These are all communication aids and are not intended to replace speech, rather they should support your child’s development. It’s essential that speech is used alongside Makaton, and many people will just sign key words from a spoken sentence. Visual timetables should be accompanied by simple language to support understanding. Many people choose a ‘now’ and ‘next’ format to convey the meaning of the board. For example, repeating the simple phrase “Now, brush teeth. Next, play outside.”
  5. Speak to your child’s school or nursery setting. Teachers or SENCO should have knowledge on your child’s ability, readiness to engage with a new communication system as well as knowledge and experience of implementing them. Consistent communication tools across home and school will help support your child’s engagement.


We’ve put together some communication packs and cards for different situations like attending a hospital appointment or getting a good night’s sleep. We are happy to create bespoke packs of communication symbols for specific situations or events – just get in touch with us.

Visit our Communication Resources area here.

Visit our Sensory Resources area here.

Additional support

Our family services team here to help with any communication questions you might have. Contact us on 0113 235 1331 or info@leedsmencap.org.uk

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