Sally McKeown visits an innovative community scheme helping autistic kids to communicate
BoardMaker symbols checklistStudent checklist created with 'BoardMaker'How can parents and community groups access software resources that might be otherwise too expensive for them? A project between Mayer-Johnson and Leeds libraries may point the way.

Mayer-Johnson's BoardMaker Studio software, which has been shortlisted for the BETT 2012 ICT Special Educational Needs Solutions award, is being cheered on by a group of parents and librarians from Leeds who have won a crop of awards themselves using this symbol software to support children with communication  difficulties.

It all began in 2008 when Kate Webber walked into her local library in Moor Allerton in Leeds to find out what they could offer her son Theo. He was six years old at the time and has a form of autism which affects his ability to communicate. The library had very few resources for such children but librarian Jason Tutin learned that Theo used Boardmaker symbol software at school and brought home a communication board with symbols.

About 25 pre-school children per year are diagnosed with autism in Leeds. Like Theo, many are non–verbal and need an alternative means of communication, and Jason Tutin realised many other families benefit from the software. So the library bought the BoardMaker software.

However, as we all know, buying the software is just the first stage and many a good piece of software has stayed in a cupboard or been lost in the depths of a computer network server because of lack of support and training. So Jason Tutin provided a space where a group could meet one morning a week to share skills. Soon, parents were producing symbols and timetables, books and key words and began using the library's laminator to produce robust, individualised practical materials. Best of all they could create and produce their own symbols, instead of waiting for a professional to design and produce a picture for them.

'In terms of his confidence, he’s much happier now'

The families discovered that these resources could unlock meaning for a child and help him at home, at school and in the outside world too. One parent said, “The symbols give Christopher some control and they give him a voice. He can say what he wants to happen. In terms of his confidence, he’s much happier now. I’m building up the number of symbols that I’ve got at home by coming to the library.”

As the group's skills grew, others got involved and soon there was a whole community of users. They set up a project group with speech and language therapists from NHS Leeds Community Healthcare, and library staff received autism awareness training. Now BoardMaker is installed on computers in 25 libraries across the city and has become the third most used piece of software. The scheme has won several awards including the "Libraries Change Lives" award and a "Success in Partnership Working" award.

Now BoardMaker is proving to be useful for other groups too. Jason Tutin says, "Boardmaker was designed for children with disabilities that affected their verbal communication. But symbols and visual support can be used with children and adults with a whole range of abilities and specific needs One Polish boy is catching up with his English using BoardMaker, and Leeds is looking at groups of older people, perhaps recovering from strokes or facing the problems of early Alzheimer's disease."

Moor Allerton library came up trumps for its local community, and by working with Mayer-Johnson staff found a way to support parents and children. As one parent said, "I honestly don’t know what I would have done without this service, I really don’t. It just felt like, in this world where you have to fight for everything, that somebody cared.”


Sally McKeownSally McKeown is a freelance writer and is an expert in special needs and inclusion

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