Talking Mats screenshotThere are lots of ways to start communication. 'Talking Mats' is a good one, says Sal McKeown 
Last week at Communication Matters, the annual conference for augmentative and alternative communication, I saw Talking Mats, a really simple but effective intervention which has just gone digital. Originally it was a textured mat – hence the name – but it is now available as a free App for iOS and Android devices.

At the top of the on-screen mat there is a scale which represents good to indifferent to bad. Users have a pile of images, symbols or words relevant to the topic. As with the old-style Fuzzy Felt (yes, it's still around), they move the pictures or words so they are in an appropriate place on the scale. Now they have a visual reference for discussion. Talking Mats is a great way of introducing a topic and eliciting views without interrogating the learner, and this is especially good in those situations where too much eye contact would be off putting.

I found the whole process of using Talking Mats especially fascinating because I have been busy creating 'talking cards' for Fink Cards called Dealing with Dyslexia at Home and Dealing with Dyslexia at School. These are due out next month. I have found that the process of devising questions which will encourage communication without being too threatening is quite a challenge. I am filled with admiration for those who are doing similar things with people who have no intelligible speech or who cannot process language easily.

There is a big audience for a resource like this because more than 2.5 million people in the UK have communication difficulties. Some result from disabilities but for others it might be because of mental health problems or dementia. Talking Mats could also be effective for traumatised children, those who have come from war zones or suffered bereavement or abuse.

Greig McMurchie, aged 32, from Grangemouth, was one of the inspirations for Talking Mats. He has cerebral palsy and was frustrated by the lack of appropriate methods available for people with communication difficulties. Scottish speech and language therapists Dr Joan Murphy and Lois Cameron developed Talking Mats to help him, and realised that they could be applicable in a wide range of health, social work, residential and education settings.

Recently their company, Talking Mats Limited, a social enterprise linked to Stirling University, joined forces with software company Arum, to create three apps – a taster, Talking Materials Lite and Talking Materials Pro.

Early in September the new products were launched by Anne McGuire MP, who is co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Disability Group (APPDG). She spoke of "the importance of this technology in allowing people to have their own voice and not having other people speak or make decisions for them".

As for Greig McMurchie, he was so pleased with the new developments that he put in a request for an iPad and the new app.

Ratings (out of 5)
Fitness for purpose   5
Ease of use              5
Features                   5
Quality                      5
Value for money       5 – It's free! 

Talking Mats 
Communication aid app for Apple and Android mobile devices, free from the app stores for both platforms
More information from www.talkingmats.com 
Dealing with Dyslexia at Home and Dealing with Dyslexia at School, by Sal McKeown, will be available in October from Fink Cards 

Sal McKeownSal McKeown is a freelance journalist and author of How to Help your Dyslexic and Dyspraxic Child, published by Crimson.
She has just been given TextHelp's Dyslexia Champion Award 2013 in recognition of going beyond the call of duty to help people with dyslexia and to promote awareness of the issue.