'Tactile communication' represents a valued means of interaction for and with people with complex learning difficulties. Learning Disability Today caught up with the authors of TaSSeLs (Tactile signing for sensory learners), who were happy to answer ten questions on the topic. 

  • What is tactile communication - who is it appropriate for and why?

Tactile communication is the use of touch on safe areas of the body to provide information when speech on its own is difficult to understand.

TaSSeLs is best for learners with complex learning difficulties who are functioning at early developmental levels. It is also useful for learners who require additional sensory cues to support their communication and learning, e.g. gaining their attention and maintaining an interaction.

  • At what age can children start to learn?

All children begin learning as soon as they are born so it’s never too early to begin using tactile signs with a child. It is important that adults supporting learners consistently use the signs to give information about what is going to happen. This is so the learners begin to link each sign with a specific action or activity.

As with typical language development, we would expect a learner to develop their understanding of the signs before expecting them to use any signs themselves. The age at which a learner would start to do this is variable and is highly dependent on each learner’s individual level of learning.

  • Is it for adults too?

Yes, TaSSeLs is designed to be a lifelong communication system so the tactile signs are suitable for learners of any age. When developing the signs, we ensured that all signs met safeguarding controls so the signs are appropriate for anyone of any gender and sensitive areas of the body are avoided. We appreciate that some of the key words that are used with signs may change as learners move into adulthood, for example ‘school’ may change to ‘college’.

  • Is TaSSeLS a language of its own, within tactile communication? Why is TaSSeLs considered the most important form of tactile communication?

TaSSeLs has a distinctive emphasis within the field of tactile communication. It is designed to support a learner’s understanding of functional everyday routines and to encourage anticipation and interaction as opposed to things simply happening to the learner. TaSSeLs has an important role to play in developing communication but it is an addition to the spectrum of well-established approaches, each of which has an important role to play.

  • 'Hand-under-hand (preferred method)', 'hand-under-hand (adapted method)' and the 'on-body method': so many different terms! Why are there different methods and which ones should users focus on?

There are three methods within the resource so that as far as possible the signs can be personalised to meet the individual needs of each learner. This enables the communication partners to consider the physical restrictions of each learner so they can participate in the interaction as fully as possible. 

  • What interactions do tactile learning help with? Education? Parenting? Work? Social…?

There are 50 core vocabulary signs within the resource which relate to functional everyday routines. These relate to important activities that regularly take place throughout the day and which impact upon the learner educationally and socially and which support meaningful interactions both in the home and a variety of other settings.

  • How were each of the forms of tactile communication developed and are they still developing?

The signs and the approaches were created in response to an identified need within the population of children and young people with complex learning difficulties and disabilities.  TaSSeLs was the result of multi-agency consultations and trial and review during a pilot project.  Following the publication of the first edition in 2012, we have continually reflected upon the practice of tactile signing and this has led to further refinements which are reflected within the second edition. 

  • What are the limitations of tactile communication compared to speech?

Tactile communication is a vitally important support for communication which provides an additional sensory cue alongside spoken key words to promote understanding. It is not used in isolation but is always used in conjunction with speech. Tactile signing encourages communication partners to engage at the pace of the learner and to consider the verbal language they use.

  • At what age should parents or carers consider tactile communication?

Evidence would suggest that babies begin to receive tactile signals whilst still in the womb so we would recommend using tactile communication from birth! Parents have told us that using TaSSeLs helps them to connect with their child, supporting the bonding process.

  • Is it used internationally or just in the UK?

TaSSeLs is in use throughout the UK and it is also being used in Sweden, Norway, Japan and Gibraltar that we are aware of. We have delivered training in Sweden on several occasions and will be visiting Norway later this year to deliver further training sessions. 

TaSSeLs (Tactile Signing for Sensory Learners) Second Edition, authored by Joe Woodall and Denise Charnock and published by Pavilion, is available to buy here.