In order to help people with communication difficulties to convey their opinions, wishes and choices, Irish learning disability services make use of several communication systems/aids. One such tool, ‘Talking Mats™’, is a low-tech communication aid developed by speech and language therapists Joan Murphy and Lois Cameron of the Alternative and Augmentative Communication (AAC) research team at the University of Stirling (Scotland). The tool has been designed to provide a visual framework of picture symbols to help people to express their views more easily—people with a limited ability to communicate verbally because of neurological disorder, stroke, cerebral palsy, as well as people with an intellectual disability who also have communication impairment.
The ‘talking mats’ framework consists of picture symbol cards attached with Velcro™ to a textured mat. A number of picture cards are chosen to represent three aspects of any ‘discussion’: the issue, emotions/feelings, and influences/options (factors that may have a positive or negative effect on the issue). The mats may be used in a one-to-one setting, or with a group. Any pictures, drawings, photographs, symbol systems or three-dimensional objects can be used. Boardmaker™ software provides clear a wide range of colourful pictures that can be appropriately modified for clients’ needs.
With the help of a communication partner, an individual can use their voice, facial express and/or finger/eye pointing to select cards that best represent their choice at each stage of discussion on an issue. The act of physically moving a picture card onto the mat seems to help in organising the thought process and allows the necessary time to consider, or to alter opinions.
The use of ‘talking mats’ can be an effective aid in eliciting the opinions/choices of people with quite severe intellectual disability. Because the tool is flexible and low-tech, ‘communication partners’—key workers and family members—can soon build up rapport and expertise in helping persons with communication skills to express themselves. Issues may involve simple choices (‘I want to go to the swimming pool today, but not to the coffee shop’), or more complex issues (‘It frightens me when people talk too loud or crowd around me’). In each context, a wide range of cards is made available, and verbal cues from the communication partner interpret any symbols that are unclear. The decision to place any card on the mat, and choice of any emotion-card to match the pictured activity or event, is indicated by the person him/herself- As the discussion progresses, according to the time-requirements of the individual, they may wish to ‘change their mind’, moving one or more opinion cards, on second thought. The individual is reassured that there are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers in making the talking mats, and that the choices made are their choices. This limits the problem of acquiescence, where a person with intellectual disability gives the reply that he/she feels to be expected. In this context, the communication partner needs to take some care to avoid suggestibility. The client must feel as free to select a ‘don’t like’ or ‘angry’ symbol, as he/she is to choose the ‘contented’ or ‘happy’ symbol.
At the conclusion of a talking-mat ‘conversation’, notes can be taken for future reference, or a photograph made of the client’s conclusions.
Talking mats can also be used as an aid in sequencing the stages of an activity—making soup, getting clothes ready for a weekend at home, etc. The picture cards can also provide a useful visual aid to facilitate and clarify discussion with individuals who have speech, but who are reticent to explain their opinions or feelings.