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Choosing a communication approach

Last reviewed: 25 June 2024

Choosing how your child will communicate is a personal decision. It might be affected by lots of things, such as:

  • the language your family uses at home
  • your child’s level of deafness
  • where you live
  • whether your deaf child or their siblings have any additional needs.

Whichever communication approach you choose, keep an open mind and be flexible about your child’s changing needs. The most important thing is that your child has the best support to learn from and influence the world around them, make choices and enjoy relationships. Different children can do this in different ways.

The choices you make now don’t have to be permanent. As your baby grows and reaches their first milestones, the professionals who work with your child can help you to track their progress and decide whether to try a different approach.

Clarissa is mum to Griffin (3), who’s severely deaf and has Down’s syndrome.

“My advice to other parents is to do what feels good and what will work for you. If you give your child options, you might find that the communication route you want them to take might not be the route that’s best for them. Give them all the options; they’re sponges at that age. Even if they’re not talking or signing back to you yet, one day they might, and it’ll feel amazing.”

Understanding the options

In the UK, most deaf children communicate using speech, sign language, or a combination of both, such as Sign Bilingualism or Sign Supported English (SSE).

Joining a local support group or attending Deaf events can be a great way to see how deaf children and young people communicate in different ways.

Some deaf children with additional needs use more specialised communication methods, such as a Picture Exchange System (PEC), where the child points at pictures to express their needs. If your child uses a specialised approach in the early years, keep in mind that they might ‘outgrow’ this approach. As they get older, you may need to change to a different approach to ensure they can reach their full potential. For example, if your child’s nursery uses Makaton, you might want to consider finding a school that uses British Sign Language (BSL) in the future. Find out more about communication options for deaf children with additional needs.

Jennie is mum to Olive (4), who’s profoundly deaf and wears cochlear implants.

“She’s what we call a total communicator. Her understanding of spoken language is within the expected range for her age, so she’s semi-verbal and uses speech, British Sign Language (BSL), which is slightly hindered by her cerebral palsy, a lot of facial expressions and a communication aid as well.”

Making an informed choice

When you’re researching different communication methods, be aware that some charities and organisations promote a specific communication approach. Although these organisations might have lots of evidence to show why their approach is successful, there isn’t enough evidence to show that any one method of communication is better than another. Every deaf child is different, and what works for one family might not be the best option for another.

If you’re not sure of the best approach, talk through the possibilities with the professionals who know you and your child. Here are some questions to ask yourself and the professionals.

Questions to ask yourself

  • What level of deafness does my child have?
  • Is my child’s level of deafness likely to change in the future?
  • Does my child have any additional needs that might make certain communication methods more suitable?
  • What new skills will we have to learn as a family, and how can we best commit to that?
  • Will professional support for my choice be provided locally, or will I need to travel?
  • Will I need to pay for lessons in my chosen communication approach, or is funding available to support my choice?
  • How might my choice affect my child’s future, in terms of social and educational experiences and opportunities?

Questions to ask local services and professionals

  • What are the communication choices available to me and my child? (Ask to see your local service's communication policy.)
  • What other approaches might be supported in the surrounding areas?
  • Where can I get other information from?
  • Can I meet other parents who have chosen a variety of approaches and learn from their experiences?
  • Can I meet deaf adults or young people who use varied approaches to learn from their experiences?
  • What opportunities exist locally for my child to learn alongside other children in our choice of approach?
  • What staff does the service have to help me support my child’s communication? What specialist skills and training do they have and how will they support my choice?

Finding communication approaches that are supported in your area

Unfortunately, support for all communication approaches is not always available in every area. But that doesn't mean that your child's preferred communication approach should be limited by your location.

If your child's needs are better suited to a different approach that's not normally supported in your area, talk to the professionals who work with your child about how you can access the support and information you and your deaf child need.

Leigh is mum to Rafael (12), who’s profoundly deaf.

“We spent the first three years battling with the school that Signalong wasn’t adequate because it’s not a language. Deaf children need BSL. Now Rafael communicates fully with BSL, and he’s a great signer, but I wish we’d started learning it even earlier.”