My brain dump on our experience, I hope others will add their stuff because obviously different disorders present different challenges!! And also because we are always after new ideas from people who are actually using stuff - that's been our most helpful source so far!
Our experience is from having Austin who has severe verbal & oral dyspraxia, he was non-verbal until about 4.5 years and is still chronically delayed in speech (he'd be lucky to have the verbal skills of a 2 year old). He was unable to mimic until he was 2 years old, and wasn't able to use pictures until he was 3 years old.
Our strategies have been to use Makaton Sign Language (started when he was 2.5yrs), PECS (started when he was just over 3yrs) and a lot of visual & situational miming. Last year Austin was given a SpringBoard computer which is a touch screen version of PECS - we got this through the technology for people with a disabilities section and the cost was covered by a government grant.Makaton Sign Language
Simplistically, Auslan is the language, Makaton is a way of using Auslan. The key points with Makaton (versus full blown Auslan) are
a) key words - "cat sat on the mat" becomes "cat" "sat" "mat"
b) contextual - you use your environment and 'action' the signs to help with understanding
c) you model the speech at the same time as doing the sign
The books are:
1) "The Makaton Vocabulary" Auslan Edition
2) "Key Signs: a supplement to The Makaton Vocabulary" Auslan Edition
Makaton - http://www.newcastle.edu.au/centre/sed/makaton/
- look under 'vocabulary' for the words to start using (ie, stage 1 but not things that aren't relevant to your life!!).
Auslan - http://www.auslan.org.au
- has a little video stream for each sign, fantastic help!!
A good guide when to start is when your child starts to mimic (eg, wave hello/bye when you say 'bye') which was around 10 months for Gilly but wasn't until 2 years for Austin (so developmental delay could effect their readiness). Starting with basic needs is a good motivation - food related works well (more, finished, stop). Then build up slowly. You learn with them, so you don't need to panic about not knowing signs. Also, recognise any attempt but model correct yourself - small children will do things like use two hands instead of one etc. They tend to get movement, then body position, then hand shape - it's a progression rather than an immediate result.
People will say things like 'won't it stop them talking' - not the case - all children learn signs like to point in context, wave, shake/nod their head, wink etc, this is just an extension of that! Signing is a more difficult & slower form of communication - as soon as they are able, children will use words. PECS
We use PECS for areas where we need fine detail & he can't say the word yet - so he'd sign 'hungry' then head to the PECS food board to make a selection. We also use PECS for communicating with people who don't spend as much time with Austin. I also use PECS for schedules & to do lists (like the school morning routine).
Austins main areas of frustration & motivation were around what food he wanted to eat and which DVD he wanted to watch - so I made a food board in the kitchen (with all PECS pictures) and a DVD book (I used a business card holder and printed out the covers). Here's a link to a picture of our food boardhttp://users.bigpond.com/naughty_and_stinky/FoodBoard.jpg
(you can actually see our Toy Story DVD card in the middle of the board). It's just piece of short haired carpet and the pictures have the hook bit of Velcro stickers on them - easy to take on & off.
We started with 3-4 pictures and build up as he got used to it - we also did choices, something boring & something grand (depending on what he likes - for example, for Austin it was 'toast' or 'yoghurt' - he loved yoghurt) - then when he chose I'd have whatever ready and whipped it out straight away with positive reinforcement. At the start, if he came to me whiny and I asked if he was hungry (if he was he'd head to the kitchen), I'd go straight to the food board and pick the two choices then get him to take it from me, then give it back. Then I left it on the board, then I'd have him go and get it from the next room. After 2-3 months it built up to him spontaneously getting the picture of food. When he could do 50 difference pictures I added in "I want" - we always practised speech along with the picture. We use pictures mainly for scheduling & story boards now.
We use Boardmaker, downloading pictures from the net and our digital camera to make PECS cards (and a laminator). The school has a load of COMPICS they use.SpringBoard Touch Screen Computer
This has PECS in it - he uses it at school to communicate with his aide and the teacher when they're doing 1:1 work that needs him to provide detail (like concept work, counting etc).http://store.prentrom.com/cgi-bin/store/SB-AEN-IBM-MORE.html
I've seen some pretty cool Palm Pilot like things for older kids that allow them to actually type in words etc - as much as I hope we don't need it, it's good to know there are options that are useful & practical. I'm hoping Austin might also be able to use the same device to have his school schedules & to do lists etc in it (part of his dyspraxia is that he struggles with organisation & planning).
All along, my goal has been to try to provide him a way of communicating while we waited to see what happens with his speech. This has meant that Austin has been able to progress with other development stuff like comprehension & problems solving (although still obviously hampered by verbal delay as he can't ask the millions of questions 'normal' kids ask to aide with understanding concepts).