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Talking Mats and Autism- Have you sometimes tried it and it didn’t work?

There is a growing interest in teaching TM to people with ASD. We know that some important adaptations might be required to make this a meaningful experience, and are keen to share our learning so far.

Being asked for thoughts or views can be difficult for some people with communication difficulties.  In particular, there is a group of people with autism where some of the core principles of Talking Mats have to be taught in stages.   Some thinkers will just ‘get it’ and find it a valuable tool for sharing their thoughts and for supporting decision making.  For others there may have to be adaptations and /or  specific teaching e.g. the vocabulary of the top scale.  We heard recently of a student in a specialist centre who couldn’t use Talking Mats.  However the staff would include him in groups where it was used and make sure he was around others doing Mats.  After a few years, he did learn the principles and go on to use it effectively.

We have gathered ideas and knowledge from practitioners working in the field of autism and included these on our web-site under Free Stuff on Communication Disability.  ASD guidelines  It’s important that these guidelines grow and adapt as we learn more about using TM with an even wider range of people.

We’ve arranged a twilight session here at Stirling on the 1st of February 2018  to bring together practitioners working in the field of autism to extend our knowledge and encourage a staged approach to effective use of Talking Mats.
We’re delighted that Ruth Chalmers, Principal Teacher for Autism Spectrum Info and Support Team (ASIST) in Fife will be joining us to talk about developing social communication skills using Talking Mats. There will be time for small group chat so bring along a case you want to discuss.
Please share the attached flier 201802 AsD seminar with your network and we hope you can join us

Please come along and   If you are interested in attending this twilight session 4.00pm to 6.00 pm (cost £20.00),  please notify us at


It’s not necessary to use every symbol in each topic set to have a successful conversation. The Talking Mats symbol sets have a range of options, some concrete and some abstract (more difficult for some to understand)  You don’t need to use every symbol in your set!

People have found the Work/Education set in the Health and Wellbeing resource useful around times of transition from senior school or when finishing college. It is  also valuable as a tool to support a person’s thinking during the process of applying for jobs.  The symbols support these 2 aspects of work and education and are taken from the WHO ICF section on Major life areas[1].  For more information here’s a link to an earlier blog about the ICF.


When asking someone to think about different kinds of work, suggested top scales are  like/not like or important/not important.  The choice is dependent on what you want to find out and what level of understanding the thinker has.

If the person is then pursuing options, there are different symbols to cover the aspects involved in this. e.g. application and interview.  A different top scale  managing /not managing ensures useful information is gained.

Each topic set can be broken down into what matters to that person at that moment in time, and using different top scales results in getting different information.

This set is available to purchase in both digital form and symbol cards



[1] ICF International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health –World Health Organization p164-167

Thanks to the Action Group  in Edinburgh for their great blog about their co-trainer Lynnette Linton .

In 2016, a number of people with learning disabilities attended a Talking Mats training  designed to build their communication skills and confidence so they could  use  to interview others about their community participation, in regard to Charter for Involvement goals. One of those trained was Lynnette Linton, the National Involvement Network Chairperson, and a Service User of The Action Group in Edinburgh.

Lynnette interviewed several fellow service users using Talking Mats, and was supporting in the role of ‘Listener’ by Liz Taylor, an Action Group Training Officer, who as a consequence of this work requested to become an Accredited TM Trainer. The Charter highlights that support organisations should involve Service Users in training their staff, so it then seemed natural for Liz and Lynnette to deliver TM training to Action Group staff together, with Lynnette in the role of volunteer co-trainer.

Lynnette has since been a core part of training over 50 employees (including those at Senior levels) in Foundation Talking Mats training with the Keeping Safe add-on. Liz says, it helps that Lynnette is “naturally gifted at speaking to people, and ably demonstrates the significance of TM as a means of having your say on the service you wish to receive”.

Lynnette and Liz do a demonstration Mat together, and then when trainees are doing their own Mat or showing their videos, Lynnette points out where they are applying the key TM principles (Lynnette enjoys issuing certificates to those who successfully complete the course). She also shares anonymised stories from her experience of interviewing ‘Thinkers’, which help get across what Action Group Users “want to change and improve about their service”.

Liz says, “Our first experience of demonstrating a Mat together didn’t quite go to plan, as Lynnette became unexpectedly upset when discussing her views of a football team, when she was reminded of a close friend who had died who had been a fan”. As difficult as this was for both Lynnette and Liz at the time, it was a powerful example of how TM helps us express emotions we may not even have been ourselves aware are ‘under the surface’, and sparked real interest in TM as a communicative tool.

The Action Group started gathering feedback specifically for Lynnette in her role as co-trainer, as part of the training evaluation and trainees have said that “she is exceptionally welcoming and puts everyone at ease; her passion for the topic is very evident, and it is very beneficial to hear real life examples, and how TM helps in her own life”. This includes how Lynnette benefits from the Keeping Safe pack, as a means of raising more ‘difficult’ issues.

Lynnette says, “As a service user, I also now see myself as an important, valued co-trainer. [Training] is something I see myself doing more of in the future. My confidence has shot right up. It makes me feel proud, and my parents get to hear about it at my Review.

Staff also see the real importance of acting on the actions from each person’s Mat. Lynnette acknowledges that co-delivering has sometimes “been difficult, because I know some of the people we’re training. But I’ve been able to speak up about what I want from my support, my environment.”  Recently she trained her own Service Development Manager and Team Manager, and although she felt it was harder to be honest, she had a captive audience, and her Managers then followed through on actions from her demonstration mats:  “It’s made a difference to me, after doing a Mat with my DM about my home. I put ‘safety’ in the ‘Thumbs Down’, because I get frightened, and now I’ve got a security chain and a peephole on the door”. 

“I never thought I would be training the staff.  Now we’re booked up!”

Click for  information  about the Accredited training and or the Keeping Safe resource mentioned in the blog

This story, which highlights the importance of finding out what really matters to people, was shared by one of the staff attending the second day of an enhanced Talking Mats training course. She works in a NHS facility for people assessed as needing hospital-based continuing care.

I was working with Bill (not his real name) who is a man with severe cognitive impairment resulting from a head injury and stroke. He was very angry and agitated and we couldn’t work out what was wrong. At times he was physically aggressive when we couldn’t understand him.

One day he drew a picture of a rabbit and was very insistent about it but we didn’t know what it meant. We contacted his sister about him being angry about a rabbit. She asked around to other family members and friends but no one could think what it meant.

Bill continued to draw a rabbit and then other pictures including money and TV  so I made an improvised Talking Mat using his drawings as the options and began trying to find out what really mattered to him. I gradually connected that the TV was about about programme called Dickinson’s Real Deal (a TV programme about antiques) and that in the past Bill had had an ornament of a rabbit which he thought was worth a lot of money.

We phoned his sister again about a possible rabbit ornament and she then remembered that he had collected figurines in the past. She finally discovered the rabbit in her garage.

Once we were able to reassure Bill that his rabbit was safe his frustration lessened,he was much less angry and became more settled.

This lovely story shows us how important it is to never assume that someone is just ‘being difficult’  but that if we can try to find out what really matters to them we can make a huge difference to their lives and ours.