Our Stories: A joyful journey in communication

A joyful journey in communication


Speech and Language Therapist at MINDS Towner Gardens School, Clover Tan, 27, vividly remembers the first time her student Irfan, 14, made a verbal request for his favourite music toy while using the Key Word Sign (KWS) for “music”. In that moment, she felt that all her struggles and hard work had paid off.

Irfan was one of Clover’s first students and communicated predominantly through gestures. Today, the 14-year-old student has progressed by leaps and bounds, using single words to communicate with the help of KWS. He has learnt to request for items or activities such as “car” or “bubble”, and express concepts like “more” or reject an activity using the sign for “finish”.

“I will never forget the joy that I felt when he achieved all these little goals and milestones,” said Clover.

Speech and Language Therapist, Clover Tan, and her student, Irfan

Little steps go a long way

Irfan, who has Down Syndrome, was referred to Clover by his teachers as they felt that he needed extra support to strengthen his communication skills as he was minimally verbal.

When Clover first started working with Irfan in 2020, she recalled how it was tricky for him to step out of the classroom and follow her to the therapy room. He would move his hands away when Clover tried to guide his hands to sign or show him what to do.

Being fairly new to the school at the time, Clover was discouraged by Irfan’s response towards her. Hearing her concerns, Irfan’s teachers helped and encouraged her, sharing that Irfan might be reluctant to follow her as he was not familiar with her, and would be more accepting of her during the next session.  

They were right.

Irfan warmed up to Clover after the second session and made rapid progress.

Through Clover’s gentle guidance, play-based activities and constant communication with Irfan’s teachers, Irfan started to imitate speech and the signs Clover showed him. For instance, she would introduce ball games to teach him the words “ball”, “throw” and “catch”. His teachers then used these signs during classroom time to reinforce his learning.

From there on, Irfan learnt to sign for various communicative functions such as requesting, rejecting and greeting.  

Clover recalls with a laugh how he would request for the Korean hit song ‘Gangnam Style’ and dance along to it.  “He is communicating a lot more meaningfully, spontaneously and intentionally,” she said.

Today, when Irfan walks along the corridor, he happily greets his teachers by waving and signing “hello” or “bye bye” verbally with approximated speech.

Irfan cheerily greeting his teacher along the school corridor.
Irfan cheerily greeting his teacher along the school corridor.

Describing him as a “sweet, sociable and cheerful boy,” Clover says his sunny personality shines through and she constantly looks forward to their sessions. “Whenever I enter his classroom, his smile and enthusiasm to see me always brighten up my mornings.”

She is also grateful to have supportive and dedicated colleagues in Irfan’s teachers.  They are always happy to continue using the strategies provided in the classroom and will also update her about his progress, she said.

“Although sometimes it may feel like the things that they shared are small things, but it is really powerful and impactful to me,” she said.

Partnership and friendship

During the Circuit Breaker period in 2020, Clover was concerned about being able to build rapport with her students’ parents, including Irfan’s mother, online. Despite her worries, Clover developed a warm rapport with Irfan’s mother, who Clover describes as “very supportive”.

Irfan’s mother also readily made time in her busy schedule to discuss how to support his learning at home and followed up with strategies suggested by Clover. For instance, Irfan’s mother suggested that they work on KWS commonly used at home, such as “bed”, “blanket”, “food”, “toys” and “help”. Clover also shared KWS materials like posters for Irfan’s mother to refer to, to ensure he was consistently practising KWS in his own time.

In June 2020, Irfan’s mother attended Clover’s first caregivers’ sharing session conducted online. While Clover initially felt nervous about conducting the sharing, seeing Irfan and his mother lightened the atmosphere and eased her jitters. Clover expressed how encouraged she was having someone familiar present to support her, and motivated by Irfan’s mother’s enthusiastic participation in the sharing session.

Irfan and the artwork outside his classroom made by him and his classmates.

It takes a community

Verbal communication may not be straightforward for persons with disabilities and students with special needs like Irfan. To support different needs and abilities, a wider communication approach may be necessary. This includes augmentative and alternative communication (AAC), such as gestures or KWS, object and visual communication systems. 

In this regard, teachers and speech therapists at MINDS strive to find creative ways to help students develop their communication skills.

Together with MINDS’ Caregiver Support Services, the Speech and Language team rolled out Community Request Cards, where students pass a card to a member of a public to request for assistance.

Clover elaborates, “For instance, the child has a card that says, “I’m lost and I need help to take the train back home” or “I want to buy chicken rice, please take $10 and return the change to me.” She plans to teach Irfan to use the Community Request Cards as he goes out into the community.

Getting the community’s buy-in is pivotal.

“I hope to advocate for more people in the disability sector. If we don’t advocate for them, they will find it hard to access the community in future, and people in the community won’t know how to support them or will shun them,” Clover concludes.

Speech and Language therapy enhances our students’ and clients’ quality of life by supporting their development of communication, speech, and social skills through professional evaluations and personalised intervention strategies. Learn more about MINDS’ speech and language therapy and Allied Health Professional services here.

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NOTICE OF THE 59TH ANNUAL GENERAL MEETING OF MINDS: NOTICE is hereby given that the 59th Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (MINDS) will be held by way of electronic means as follows: Date: Saturday , 18 September 2020 Time: 9:30am (Registration starts at 8:30am) Venue: Online via ZOOM MINDS members will be receiving an email on the notice of AGM and are strongly encouraged to register your attendance to facilitate the verification process on the day of the AGM. For enquiries regardingthe AGM, members may email to agm@minds.org.sg or call 849607358