Reviewed by Margaret Farrelly, Senior Clinical Psychologist, Brothers of Charity Services, Bawnmore, Limerick


Enabling communication in children with autism is based on a two-year research project undertaken in five special schools, with eighteen children with severe autism and minimal or no speech, ranging in age from two to six. The authors of this book departed from previous approaches in that their focus was on spontaneous communication and the capacity of children with autism to initiate and approach others when presented with communication enabling environments.

A recent concern of researchers and practitioners involved in the field of autism is that the abilities necessary to make communicative responses are not the same as those necessary for initiating a communication. Therefore ‘children who only have practice in responding may become proficient responders but are unlikely to become proficient spontaneous communicators.’

Central to this approach is the belief that children with autism and minimal or no speech are capable of communicating and interacting intentionally. However, this depends on creating communication-enabling environments thus moving the debate on from a deficit model to a capacity model.

The main characteristics of the approach are:

  • The use of minimal speech by staff and other adults
  • Proximal communication
  • The use of appropriate systems of communication
  • Communication curriculum as a prominent educational goal.

Proximal communication consists of a range of non-verbal techniques to engage children with autism in social interactions and includes sequences of playful exchanges, burst/pause phases, minimal speech, shaping gesture and pointing, imitation of the child’s vocalisations and motor responses and a basic acceptance on the part of educators and carers that individuals with significant communication impairments have the right to get their basic needs met, to protest and to make choices.

The techniques are made explicit throughout the book with examples of how the rate and quality of the children’s spontaneous communications increased quite dramatically when staff changed their approach.

Apart from describing the research, the book has chapters on exactly what a minimum speech approach consists of with examples of how to use it. There is an excellent chapter on ‘enabling styles of class-room management’ which presents principles of good practice not only for classrooms but for any service where there are individuals with significant communication difficulties.

The authors recommend replication of their research with other groups of children in different educational settings and in the home.

While there is some discussion in the book on how this approach compares to others, such as Options and TEACCH, a comparison with the use of Pecs and Hanen (adapted) would have been very interesting. In the search for holistic comprehensive programmes for young children with autism this book gives another perspective and a set of practical suggestions. It is a book that I will be going back to and recommending to parents, teachers of young children, classroom assistants and speech and language therapists.

ENABLING COMMUNICATION IN CHILDREN WITH AUTISM by Carol Potter and Chris Whittaker (2001) Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 116 Pentonville Road, London N1 9JB. Stg£12.95. ISBN 1-85302-956-4.