Finding the missing links – Olivia’s journey to communication and connection

Little girl with special needs enjoy spending time with mother in nature

We’ve all heard the motto ‘communication is key’, but could we be doing more to understand the people around us?

Eight-year-old Olivia has multiple, complex disabilities that affect her motor development, eating and ability to talk.

In her short life so far, the book-lover has overcome an extensive list of obstacles just to be able to do something many of us take for granted: communicate with her peers.

While Olivia can speak and is understood by her family and close friends- low muscle tone throughout her body, face, lips and tongue mean she can sometimes be difficult to understand for those who don’t know her.

For a youngster navigating the perils of the playground, barriers to communication can also mean barriers to social inclusion.

Susan, Olivia’s supportive mother, revealed that Olivia uses several different ways to interact with her classmates, including Key Word Sign, an aide and an augmentative alternative communication (ACC) device.

“It’s pretty hard to ask for a chocolate milkshake at your local cafe if they don’t know how to sign, but they could understand using an AAC device,” Susan said.

“We recognise that, going forward, Olivia needs to be able to communicate with unfamiliar partners which is extremely tricky for her now, and while she has a lot of communication strategies, she is still very hard to understand by those unfamiliar to her.”

Speaking the same language

Olivia, who lives in rural Victoria, is lucky to be surrounded by a supportive family and an adoring younger sister.

Like any eight-year-old, her free time is dominated by playing in the garden, spending time with friends and family, or spoiling her pet cats and chickens.

Olivia has been accessing therapies through Scope since she was about 6 months old, and has made consistent progress since this time.

She began learning Key Word Sign at the tender age of one, to supplement and support her verbal language development.

“Olivia’s needs have been so broad and she has so many different goals, like feeding and eating, gross and fine motor skills, speech and communication and school and learning goals,” Susan said.

“Olivia took her first independent step in grade one, so there has been a long road in relation to motor skills.”

Scope speech pathologist, Rachel Marshall, has worked with Olivia since 2020 and has helped her advance her Key Word Sign skills and further incorporate the AAC device.

Olivia’s parents and younger sister are also well-versed in Key Word Sign – but what would it mean for kids like Olivia if more people in the wider community could sign?

And as she perseveres to connect with her classmates, Olivia’s not the only one who can sometimes feel alone.

As any parent of a child with a disability can attest, juggling the everyday struggles of parenthood, the stress of navigating the healthcare system, as well as working out how to best support your child can be exhausting.

“You have your ups and downs, and it has certainly felt like an isolating parenting journey, but you do the very best you can for your own child,” Susan revealed.

Susan not only recognises the importance of a strong support network for Olivia, but also for herself.

“We’ve always had our family right by our side and friends there for a chat, and we’ve had a large network of professionals around us in different specialities to call on.”

For more information on how Scope can help you learn Key Word Sign and augmentative alternative communication strategies, visit our website

3rd December is International Day of People with Disability. It’s a day which provides us an opportunity to listen and learn from the experiences of people with disability who inspire us every day with their courage. Some of the names in this story have been changed.