26 hours of silence…

In Blog, RCSLT 75 by Julie

This time last week I was doing a 26-hour sponsored silence as part of the ‘2.6 Challenge’. Sunday 26th April 2020 should have been the London Marathon. As it had been postponed, many small charities who depend of fundraising from such events are struggling due to the current pandemic. Therefore there is a national campaign to help raise some vital funds for a range of charities by doing something with the theme of 2.6 or 26 (between 26th April and 3rd May).

When I heard that The Toby Henderson Trust were looking for people to take part in this challenge I began to ponder what I could do to help. Initially I couldn’t think of any interesting ideas but then one night as I was falling asleep I had a sudden thought – a 26 hour sponsored silence!

When I first told my husband and family that I’d set myself this challenge they were very surprised. I talk a lot and I’m known to be quite the chatterbox so not talking for more than 24 hours would be somewhat of a challenge. I wanted to do something challenging to raise money but also thought this would be a great opportunity to raise some awareness of alternative methods of communication.

The Toby Henderson Trust are an independently funded charity supporting children with Autism and their families. I’ve been volunteering with them since January and have loved getting to know the staff and the children in the playrooms and social communication groups. I am missing everyone at Toby House and look forward to a time when it is safe for them to reopen.

My sponsored silence began at 8am on Sunday and ended (via a live video on Facebook) at 10am on Monday. I knew it would be a challenge as I do talk a lot, but I learned more about my own communication than I expected and would like to reflect on the experience.

Many of us (including me) take our ability to use spoken words for granted. Communication is a complex process and it is not surprising that some people have difficulties with some aspects of communication. I love being a Speech and Language Therapist and enabling children to express themselves in a range of different ways. SLTs also work with adults with acquired communication difficulties (such as following a stroke or other brain injury).

I used a range of methods of communicating with my husband (and my parents via FaceTime) and all of them came with some limitations. Combined, I was able to effectively get my message across on most occasions. Though I did occasionally leave some thoughts unexpressed.

Methods of communication used:
  • Signing – my husband and I have both completed the foundation stage in Makaton, so where possible I used signs to express myself. (Makaton is usually accompanied by spoken words but I just used the sign). This was really helpful around conversations about food and drink but I found it more difficult to have more specific conversations as there were a number of signs I did not know.
  • Gesture and facial expressions – non-verbal communication makes up a large amount of the message we portray. I realised this more than ever on Sunday when I could use facial expressions and gesture to let my husband know how I felt.
  • Pictures – I used Boardmaker online to print some pictures to support my message e.g. a picture of cake so I could show my husband what I planned to do next.
  • Writing – I used a variety of methods with writing including, a white board, pen and paper and texting. I sometimes found that by the time I’d written/typed out what I wanted to say it no longer felt as important or relevant as when I had the initial thought. My husband was very patient and waited for me to get my message across and overall this was the easiest way to express more complex thoughts. This would be more difficult  for individuals who also struggle with literacy.
Things I found challenging:
  • I always needed to think about the method I would use to communicate my message. Signing was my first choice where possible because I didn’t need to have anything else with me but this relied on us both knowing the signs. Sometimes I signed something and my husband did not know what I meant so I had to find a pen (meaning I always needed something nearby to support my message)
  • I was not able to communicate as easily when I was busy doing something else (e.g. baking a cake or washing up). If my hands were busy I was limited in the messages I could express.
  • A FaceTime conversation with my parents was much shorter than usual. I used my whiteboard to ask questions and reply but this slowed down the flow of conversation. My dad asked lots of yes/no questions and I responded by nodding/shaking my head.
  • It was also difficult to join in with a conversation over dinner. My husband, Tony, and his son Jack were also quieter than they usually are – so I think I must do most of the tea time talking!
Things I learned:
  • I take my own spoken voice for granted
  • I say random/short comments much more than I thought – and sometimes it was difficult to express these in a quick enough way to make them remain relevant
  • I found using alternative methods of communication more tiring – sometimes parents say they think their child is ‘lazy’ as they know the words but they just aren’t using them. Talking is a complex process and children often need support to help them with communicating. Not talking, does not make them lazy. In fact, it can be tiring to have thoughts which you are not quite sure how to express (e.g. if you can’t quite remember the word or the sequence of sounds that make up the words and sentences). Sometimes children are able to say a word but they need lots of practice before they are able to use it consistently.

For me, a 26 hour silence was a choice with a defined end point. For many people with Speech, Language and Communication Needs, using alternative methods of communication is a daily reality. Many parents are reluctant to use signing or other forms of communication as they are worried this will prevent the use of spoken words. There is strong evidence to suggest that supporting children to communicate their message reduces frustration and does not prevent the use of words. Children (and adults) will always choose the method which is easiest for them. Once spoken words develop,  this is most likely to be the quickest and easiest form of communication. Many children successfully use a combination of methods to express themselves.

I found the 26 hour silence a challenge but I am glad I did it as I raised £500 for The Toby Henderson Trust and raised awareness of communication difficulties. Check out my Facebook page to see the videos and updates from throughout the day. If you would like to contribute, the Just Giving page is still active and can be found here – The Toby Henderson Trust are so grateful for everyone’s support and I cannot thank you all enough.

Now I challenge you to try it – for 26 minutes or 2.6 hours. How many different ways can you use to express yourself without using spoken words? How easy or challenging is it? I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments.