Pathways to Expression: Developing Communication Skills of Pre-Intentional and Intentional Communicators

Uncover effective strategies to enhance communication skills in students with profound intellectual disabilities for enriched learning experiences.

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In a world that thrives on effective communication, ensuring every individual can express their needs, wants, and emotions is of paramount importance. Yet, for those who find themselves on unique communicative paths, particularly those identified as pre-intentional and intentional communicators, the journey can be far from straightforward. Often, these are individuals with profound intellectual disabilities whose interaction with the world and ability to express themselves takes on a different, albeit equally significant, form.

Our society is diverse, rich in distinct voices and unique experiences; thus, it is critical that we champion the development of communication skills for all, ensuring every voice can be heard.

This article seeks to explore what it means to support and guide individuals through the stages of communication development. While communication may come naturally for many, for pre-intentional and intentional communicators, it requires significant and thoughtful effort, guidance, and support. It is our role as educators, parents and support staff to meet these individuals where they are, responding to their unique communication methods and adapting our communication styles to best facilitate their development.

As we navigate through the stages of communication—from pre-intentional to intentional, and eventually to symbolic—we will delve into the knowledge, skills and strategies that can help guide the individual  towards more effective communication, ensuring they too can engage fully in the world around them.


Stages of Communication Defined

Stage 1 - Pre-Intentional Communicator

The first stage of communication development is characterised by pre-intentional communication. In this stage, the individual primarily exhibits a range of non-verbal behaviours to express their needs, wants, and feelings. These behaviours include facial expressions, muscle tension, breathing patterns, body movements, and eye gaze.

Pre-intentional communicators do not yet understand the cause-effect relationship between their behavior and the responses they receive. Their non-verbal behaviours are involuntary or reflexive, prompted by internal sensations (such as pain, hunger, or thirst) or external environmental changes (like hearing a loud noise or being physically moved or touched).

At this early stage, the role of the communication partner, who could be a parent, teacher, or support staff, is critical. These partners are entrusted with the responsibility of recognising, interpreting, and responding to the individual's behavior. By doing so consistently, they help the individual understand that their behaviours can indeed influence the objects and people in their environment, effectively paving the way for more intentional forms of communication.

However, it's essential to note that pre-intentional communicators are heavily dependent on their communication partners for understanding their surroundings. A predictable and consistent approach to interaction from the partner can provide the individual with a sense of security and foster their engagement with the world around them. Therefore, even though the communication at this stage may not be intentional or conscious, it is a fundamental part of the individual's journey to more complex stages of communication. The groundwork laid during this stage sets the foundation for the individual's future communicative development, making it a vital focus for parents, educators, and support staff.


Stage 2 - Intentional Communicator

The second stage in the progression of communication skill development is when the individual  becomes an intentional communicator. This transition marks an important developmental milestone, as the individual begins to understand the power of their actions as a means to communicate and influence their environment.

At this stage, individuals continue to exhibit non-verbal behaviours to communicate. However, the difference lies in their newfound awareness of the link between their behaviours (like facial expressions, vocalisations, gestures, and body movements) and the effects these behaviours have on their communication partners, objects, and their surroundings.

Unlike the pre-intentional stage where behaviours were reflexive and involuntary, an intentional communicator uses these behaviours purposefully. They might smile to express joy, reach out to request an object, or vocalise to attract attention. In other words, their communication now carries intent, indicating a growing understanding of cause and effect.

However, even as their communication becomes more purposeful, intentional communicators still depend heavily on their communication partners. As they continue to develop and refine their communication skills, a predictable and consistent approach from their communication partners remains vital. This consistent interaction aids in providing a stable and secure environment for the individual, helping them make sense of their surroundings and fostering their communicative abilities further.

In essence, the intentional communicator stage represents a significant step towards more complex communication. This period is characterised by an increasing understanding of the purpose of communication, which lays the foundation for the development of more abstract forms of communication in the subsequent stages.


Stage 3 - Symbolic Communicator

The third stage of communication development heralds the emergence of the symbolic communicator. In this stage, the complexity and sophistication of the individual's communication abilities markedly increase, signifying a significant advancement in their development.

Unlike the earlier stages where communication primarily involves non-verbal behaviours, symbolic communicators begin to use symbols to convey their messages. Symbols, in this context, represent something else - an idea, an object, an action, or an emotion. This step up in communication underscores the individual's cognitive development, as using symbols requires a higher level of abstract thinking.

Symbols can be visual, auditory, tactile, or even involve movement. They might include pictures, words, sounds, signs, objects, or gestures that have a conventional meaning shared between the sender (individual) and the receiver (communication partner). For example, a picture of a cup might represent a request to drink, or a specific hand gesture might symbolise the need to go to the bathroom.

The key characteristic of symbolic communication is that these symbols resemble what they are meant to represent in some way. They may look like, sound like, move like, or feel like the concept, object, or action they denote. This resemblance assists the individual in understanding and using the symbol accurately.

It's important to note that symbolic communicators, while demonstrating more advanced communication skills, continue to rely on their communication partners' consistent and predictable approach to interaction. The understanding and interpretation of symbols are often dependent on context and can vary between different communication partners and settings.

In essence, the symbolic communicator stage represents a crucial milestone in a individual's communicative journey. The ability to use and understand symbols broadens the individual's communicative repertoire and marks a significant leap towards more nuanced and abstract forms of communication.


Navigating Communication Development for Students with Profound Intellectual Disabilities

Students with profound intellectual disabilities present unique challenges in terms of communication development. The progression through the stages - from pre-intentional to intentional and symbolic communication - may occur at a much slower pace than their peers, or they may remain at a particular stage for an extended period. This is primarily due to the complexity of their cognitive impairments, which affects their ability to perceive, interpret, and respond to their environment and the people around them.

However, communication, in any form, is not a matter of chance but a result of dedicated support, guidance, and a tailored approach. For students with profound intellectual disabilities, every progress in their communication journey is a testament to their perseverance and the consistent efforts of their communication partners - parents, educators, peers, and others involved in their care and education.

As educators, caregivers, and parents, we shoulder the responsibility of being the more skilled participant in the two-way interaction process. As such, there are several key considerations that can guide us in supporting and fostering the communication development of these students:

  1. In-depth Understanding of Communication Strategies: It's essential to gain a thorough knowledge of the unique communication strategies used by the student. This includes recognising their non-verbal cues, gestures, facial expressions, or any other forms of pre-intentional, intentional, or symbolic communication they may use. Familiarity with their communication modes will enable us to respond appropriately and further stimulate their communication skills.
  2. Awareness of Facilitative Circumstances: It's important to be aware of the circumstances that facilitate communication. This could be a particular setting, time of day, or even specific activities that the student associates with communication. Understanding these facilitative circumstances can help us create a supportive communication environment that caters to the student's specific needs and preferences.
  3. Self-awareness of Our Behaviour: The way we interact with the student can greatly influence their communication process. It's important to maintain a consistent, patient, and receptive demeanour to make the student feel secure and understood. Our reactions to their communication attempts, our use of clear and simple language, and our body language all contribute to this communication environment.
  4. Adaptive Learning and Teaching Methods: Use visual aids, touch-based activities, sound cues, and other tools to make communication more tangible and understandable. Adapt teaching methods to suit the learning style of the student, incorporating multi-sensory experiences to engage them effectively.
  5. Reinforce Success: Positive reinforcement can go a long way in encouraging communication attempts. Acknowledge and reward successful communication, no matter how small they may seem. This helps build confidence and motivation for the student to engage in further communication.

In essence, communication development in students with profound intellectual disabilities requires a collaborative and individualised approach. With patience, understanding, and dedication, we can help these students find their unique voice, enabling them to express their thoughts, needs, and emotions more effectively.


Supporting and Guiding Communication Development: Key Strategies

Supporting the communication development of students with profound intellectual disabilities requires innovative strategies that are personalised and consistent. Here's a concise overview of these essential approaches:

  1. Personal Communication Dictionary: Develop a 'dictionary' that lists and explains the student's unique communication cues, gestures, and behaviours to better understand and respond to their communication attempts.
  2. Creating Communication Opportunities: Engage students in activities that encourage interaction and communication. Use these opportunities to help them practice and improve their communication skills.
  3. Pacing Communication: Moderate your own pace of communication to match the student's. This can help prevent misunderstandings and create a more engaging interaction.
  4. Consistent Activity Patterns: Maintain a routine or predictable pattern of activities to provide a sense of security and familiarity, helping students anticipate and prepare for communication opportunities.
  5. Individualised Activity Context: Customise activities based on the student's interests and abilities to create a more stimulating and engaging communication environment.
  6. Cue Communication Channel: Develop specific cues or signals that can trigger or facilitate communication, such as visual aids or tactile objects.

Dolly Bhargava developed the resource ‘Supporting and guiding communication development of students who are pre-intentional and intentional communicators’ in collaboration with the teaching staff, students and families at Carson Street School, Kenwick School, Burbridge School and the Department of Education Western Australia.

The resource is available as a booklet and a video and it aims to educate, enable and empower educators with information about the needs of their student with profound Intellectual disability and suggest proactive ways to promote communication skill development within the classroom.

The resource has been divided into three sections:

  • Section 1 – Intellectual Disability;
  • Section 2 – Communication; and
  • Section 3 – Supporting and Guiding Communication Development.

Section 1 includes the definiton, causes, diagnostic criteria and levels of Intellectual Disability. Section 2 includes the definition, components and stages of communication. Section 3 includes proactive strategies that can be used by educators to adapt their everyday interactions with a student with profound Intellectual Disability to facilitate the development of communication skills in classroom activities. This resource is filled with easy to use practical ideas and suggestions. Choose and adapt the suggestions to best suit the needs and style of both you and your student.

Click here to access the 'Getting Started: Supporting and guiding communication development of students who are pre-intentional and intentional communicators' resource (pdf booklet and video)

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