17−18 January 2000

In spring 1999, Parents and Professionals and Autism (PAPA) brought the ‘Icon to I Can’ conference to Ireland. The response was superb. The feedback and interest were so great that the conference was brought back in January 2000- A whole new set of delegates quickly snapped up the 180 places.

The following is an excerpt from a report written by one of the delegates who attended the first conference.

The ‘Icon to I Can’ Conference has a delegate representation from across Northern Ireland, along with colleagues from the south of Ireland, England, and a few from as far afield as Sweden. The audience was predominantly from the speech and language therapy profession, teaching staff from special education and educational psychology. However, sessions would have been relevant to other therapy staff such as occupational therapists, physiotherapists, social workers and teachers in mainstream school settings.

The two speakers, Barbara Bloomfield and Maureen Ryan, both from New York, were certainly inspiring. As well as being both informative and knowledgeable about their subject-matter, they were entertaining and modest during their presentations. They encouraged discussion, feedback and open debate. Barbara’s background is in the area of speech and language therapy, while Maureen’s is in special education. Both have a remit for developing and delivering effective intervention programmes for school-aged children with autism spectrum disorders, as well as offering a consultancy role to other schools within their area. Although the school systems in the United States and the UK differ, their message was clear regarding the key factors to successful intervention based on the use of visual symbols. Firstly, the symbols being used (objects/pictures/written word) need to be at the appropriate level of the individual and should be clearly presented and understood. Secondly, the activities being used need to be engaging and motivating for the individual. Thirdly, the materials themselves need to be used in a consistent manner, which means they need to be easily accessible to the user.

The use of visual strategies to aid an individual’s understanding and expression of the world around him/her makes sense when viewed through the eyes of someone with autism. This visual approach helps to reduce the difficulties typically experienced in autism: making sense of and processing verbal information, integrating auditory information and other types of sensory input.

Barbara and Maureen identified five levels of progression from the use of object to the use of picture symbols, and eventually the use of written word. They discussed each level in detail and gave numerous examples of visual materials appropriate for specific levels. The advice given in relation to making the progression from one level to the next was to follow the child’s response and progress gradually–thus moving onto the next level whenever appropriate. It is important to ensure that the individual has sufficient time and opportunity to experience any one specific level before moving on.

Perhaps the best way to get a grasp of examples of visual strategies which the two speakers discussed is to visit PAPA’s Central Office in Belfast, where a full selection of the resources are on display. It was extremely useful to have these resources available at the conference, to browse over and discuss with the speakers themselves and with fellow colleagues. It gave a very ‘hands on’ feel to the presentations, as did the selection of ‘freebies’ which were distributed.

The materials were incorporated into two types of schedule, i.e. a daily schedule and a one-to-one schedule. These schedules provide a concrete visual system for understanding which activities occur in what sequence. The predictability and consistency so often needed for individuals with autism are therefore maintained. The resources developed by Barbara and Maureen draw upon a variety of approaches, including TEACCH, PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) and elements of behavioural management. Owing to the diversity of approaches incorporated into this work, some interesting points for discussion were raised–the use of gesture or Makaton; the use of existing picture symbols versus the introduction of the Mayer-Johnston/Boardmaker symbols; and the feasibility of mixing aspects of one approach with those of another.

The present work of Barbara Bloomfield and Maureen Ryan is a culmination of many years’ experience and a devoted commitment to and enthusiasm for developing and delivering effective treatment and intervention for individuals with an autistic spectrum disorder–truly an inspiration to and an aspiration for all those working within the field of autism.

Barbara and Maureen are already planning a visit–to deliver two practical ‘Make and Take’ sessions–in January 2001.

PAPA is organising several more important events during the coming year. Tony Attwood and Carol Gray will speak at the Autism 2000 Conference on 17 May 2000, and plans are under way for a two-day PECS Workshop in November. A regular feature of all PAPA-organised events is the bookstall–a facility which is undoubtedly Ireland’s most comprehensive collection of resources on autistic spectrum disorders.

PAPA’s website can be checked for more information and news on coming events: (PAPA Resource Centre, Graham House, Knockbracken Healthcare Park, Saintfield Road, Belfast BT8 8BH, tel: 080-28 90401729, email: