THE family of a little girl who cannot speak are paying hundreds of pounds a week for vital sign language lessons to help them communicate with her.

Ruby Bennion, aged four, from Tranent, was diagnosed with non verbal autism in May this year after a two-year battle by her parents to find out why she was not talking like other children her age.

Now they are paying for 20 hours of therapy from autism specialists Keys For Learning as they search for a way to help Ruby communicate with her whole family, including her grandparents and big sister Annie, aged five.

Ruby's mum Emma Bennion, 35, said NHS-funded therapy available did not provide the support Ruby needed to learn the skills she needs now.

She said: "Ruby receives speech and language support but it is one hour every six weeks and it is not enough.

"We are doing something called Applied Behaviour Analysis which is trying to teach sign language to Ruby and, of course, we have to learn it as well, along with Annie and Ruby's grandparents who look after the children, so we can all communicate as a family.

"It takes 20 hours of therapy every week which is not something that the NHS provides but we have the opportunity to help Ruby and we have to take it, even if it means remortgaging the house."

Ruby was two years old when mum Emma, a principal teacher at Wallyford Primary School, and dad Graeme, who runs Preston Lodge High School's Active School programme, noticed she was not talking.

Emma said: "We realised she was not talking as much as Annie did at the same age and initially we were told it might be hearing problems."

The family were referred to experts for investigation into Ruby's hearing before focus turned to the possibility of epilepsy and brain damage.

Emma said: "There is a real reluctance among professionals to diagnose autism and we went through every alternative. Ruby was born four weeks prematurely and, at one point, we thought that was behind it.

"Even though it took until May to get a diagnosis, we still consider ourselves fortunate. I know families whose children have been in primary four before they were diagnosed."

The family have been supported by Lothian Autistic Society and are keen to raise awareness of autism.

Emma said they carry business cards, provided by the society, which they give to people when Ruby's behaviour draws attention in public.

Emma said: "Autism is more common than people realise and brings a range of behavioural issues for parents. The cards are a valuable tool in letting people who may see a child in crisis and think they are simply behaving badly understand what is happening and, hopefully, become more aware of the condition."

Driving the family's determination to learn sign language to make it easier for Ruby to communicate is her clear desire to interact. While some children with autism can be withdrawn, or seem distant, Ruby is the opposite.

Emma said: "Ruby is very loving and wants to be cuddled and with us. For us, her inability to speak is the only missing part and if we can give her a voice then we must do everything to help her."

To help Ruby communicate while the family learns its new skills, local fundraiser Davie Martin made an appeal for someone to donate an iPad which Ruby can operate a new app on choosing pictures to express what she wants to say.

David mde the appeal after meeting the family and an anonymous donor came forward to provide the new equipment.

Emma said: "We were really touched by the generosity of the person who donated the ipad and Davie for helping. We met recently and he was asking about Ruby. We mentioned this new app and he immediately said 'I can get you an iPad', it was very generous."