Compartmentalizing Communication Doesn’t Work

I’m often stuck in the middle.

Whether you’re a parent or a professional who cares deeply about a child who uses AAC as a voice, does any of this sound familiar?

I work with parents who complain that the school isn’t doing enough to support their child’s communication growth.  Parents cite bars that are set too low, limited opportunities to practice conversation skills and inadequate time spent on aided language input (or modeling) using the device throughout the school day.  There, the emphasis might be on programming an answer box used to assess the child’s grasp of academic content, rather than mastery of language that permits communication across settings and conversational partners. Teachers are overwhelmed trying to address the needs of too many students and there is limited time to practice “talking” in the classroom.

On the flip side, I also work with school personnel who complain there is little or no carryover at home.  Speech generating devices are returned to school the next day untouched and uncharged. And exhausted parents complain they are just too tired at the end of the day to work on communication after juggling homework time, dinner and personal care tasks — or managing challenging behaviors that place a strain on everyone at home.

Communication cannot be compartmentalized.

It simply doesn’t work for schools to treat an AAC device only as a tool for assessing what a student grasps of the curriculum.  Aided language input must happen across pragmatic functions beyond answering questions and requesting preferred items and activities.  Children need to learn to greet, request information, reject, protest, complain, ask questions, inform and comment.  We know there is so much pressure placed on teachers to provide instruction directly related to the curriculum and to verify understanding.  However, aided language input CAN be provided within the context of that instruction using the student’s own vocabulary.  Time to practice “talking” must be carved in throughout the school day.

Simple examples include:

  • Expect a greeting when entering the room
  • Assign students to take turns making announcements
  • Ask for opinions on everything from lesson activities and reading assignments to the lunch menu and happenings in the news
  • Initiate brief conversation time (think “speed dating”) each morning on various topics (favorite movie, biggest fear, weekend plans, etc.)
  • Send students on errands throughout the school building that require meaningful interaction with various school personnel (provide staff training!)
  • Post a daily question for students to think about while settling in at the start of the school day, allowing time for the AAC communicator to formulate a response
  • Set up barriers that promote asking for help (“forget” to open that milk container or pass out crayons needed for that art project)
  • Using randomized turns (like popsicle sticks with student names pulled from a cup), preselect students who will respond to questions (Tommy, your question will be _____. Let me know when you’re ready to answer.)
  • Formulate curriculum-related questions so they can be answered using core vocabulary on the device while providing a word bank for fringe academic vocabulary (terms like metamorphosis, cumulonimbus and electoral college don’t need to be on a communication device)
  • Model, model, model

It simply doesn’t work when parents say to school teams that they don’t need AAC at home because they know what their child wants, needs or feels. I’m not a mind reader and neither are you, as Dana Neider wrote so vehemently in her blog (http://niederfamily.blogspot.com/2013/07/i-am-not-mind-reader-and-neither-are-you.html). Yes, it takes time to model language on an AAC device.  Yes, it takes time to listen when the words come together slowly.  Yes, it takes time to educate family members, friends and neighbors on active listening strategies.  Yes, it takes time to ask your child to elaborate on what’s said to elicit more language. Yes, it’s faster to present a choice of two (Do you want burgers or pizza for dinner?) than asking an open ended question (What do you want for dinner?). When children are very young, I think it’s especially tough for parents to imagine their AAC communicator on their own–engaged in adventures apart from them–especially when that child is dependent on family for all personal and medical care.

Learning to ask for help, to communicate with confidence and to direct one’s own care is empowering even for individuals who rely on others to have their needs met. I ask parents to imagine sending their child to a camp (like Camp ALEC / http://www.campalec.com).  Would that child be able to tell his counselor that he detests broccoli or has a gluten intolerance?  What if that child is hospitalized and parents had to step away to get some rest.  Would that he be able to tell a nurse he needs more pain medication or is afraid?

Here I am in the middle, which is exactly where I am meant to be — I think — in this crazy world of mine.  Why?  Because I’m standing beside that child who is struggling to communicate EVERYWHERE to EVERYONE about EVERYTHING. When a child is not expected to use AAC throughout the day, every day, I believe we are unintentionally sending a message that we don’t always value that voice. In effect, we are silencing that child in one context or another.

When children are encouraged to communicate in every setting, they gain confidence in making themselves heard. When children watch us communicate using their devices, they not only learn language. They see us embrace their words. When children are encouraged to practice communication with new listeners in new environments, THEY become the teachers and begin to change the world.  It’s all part of the journey that is AAC.

Let’s change the world.

Every AAC journey has its ups and downs. Mateo is no exception.  Initially, he was most comfortable communicating with our immediate family at home while school reported that he was less than eager — sticking with single words and short phrases whenever possible.  As his confidence grew, so did his utterances and his personality, most notably his sense of humor, began to shine.  For quite a while, Mateo was very reluctant to use his Dynavox in the community, refusing to order his meal at restaurants or to ask someone for assistance.  Gradually, he became more and more courageous.  That’s a tough thing to do when you’re the only kid in town who uses AAC as his voice.  Nowadays, he strikes up conversations with people he meets everywhere and he’s singing the National Anthem any chance he gets. He’s still learning how to use that voice of his — aren’t we all?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UFsaMS0mklc

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AAC – Listen to Me

Let me tell you about something that has happened to me many, many times over the course of my life as Mateo’s mom.  It’s happened when we were chatting in restaurants as a family, standing in line for attractions at Disneyworld and riding on trains and planes.  It’s happened at the Grand Canyon, Cleveland Indians games, monster truck shows, campgrounds, beaches and waterparks.  People are intrigued with how Mateo communicates and he communicates EVERYWHERE.  There is nowhere he goes without his device or, when he needs something that fits in his pocket, he uses his iPod touch with an app on it.  He tells us it doesn’t bother him anymore when people appear to be staring.  I think it used to make him feel uncomfortable because there was a time he was very reluctant to speak in public places, refusing to order his meals in restaurants, for example. Now he proudly sings the National Anthem with his own voice for crowds.  Don’t get me wrong. He wishes he could use his “real” voice if he could, but with AAC he can say anything that’s on his mind.

AAC has been a part of our lives since Mateo was four years old.  He’s attended camps to promote his communication, gain confidence, meet other AAC communicators and learn to advocate for himself.

Before meeting Mateo, many people have said to me that they’ve never met someone who communicates using AAC.  Others have said to me that they’ve never met an individual who is able to communicate as proficiently as Mateo or who could truly communicate anything they’d like to say.  To me, this is still so surprising to hear.  Maybe that’s because we’ve been fortunate to be a part of an amazing extended family all brought together by Joan Bruno and her beautiful Camp Chatterbox.  Maybe that’s because I’m a speech-language pathologist.  Maybe it’s because I’ve met cool kids at Camp ALEC as well.  There are AAC communicators all over the world.  Thankfully, we are not on this crazy rollercoaster ride on our own.

So, here I am on my soapbox again.  Individuals who are nonverbal can only communicate exactly what’s on their mind if they are able to write.  Mateo uses a robust core vocabulary program called Picture Wordpower 100 on his Dynavox Maestro.  But, despite all my efforts to convince him that he’d be faster if he used his core vocabulary, he prefers to spell and use word prediction for the bulk of his messages.  That’s because he can.  Language + Literacy = Empowerment!

I want to show the world how Mateo communicates–and how others are empowered with AAC as well.  He’s given me his permission to do so.  Here he dishes about Camp ALEC in an interview.  We’ll post more talks soon.

Want to show off your mad AAC skills?  Just getting started and proud of those early words?  Let me hear you ROAR!  Email a link to your video to me at voices4all@gmail.com and I will share it.

If you’d like to learn more about Camp ALEC, a literacy camp for AAC communicators offered August 14-20 at Indian Trails Camp in Grand Rapids, MI please visit http://www.campalec.com.

I want to talk with my REAL voice

Every once in a while, just when you think you are sailing on smooth seas on a sunny day with a pleasant breeze nudging your sails along, a giant rogue wave comes out of nowhere and tosses you into an icy surf.

Over tonight’s dinner out with my boys, Mateo told us that he wants to learn to talk with his voice, his REAL voice (pointing to his mouth).  He said that he knows he can do it if he works at it really hard and he knows that I can help him.  Gulp.

He went on to recall that his friend Kevin told him in the 5th grade that he knew that Mateo would eventually learn to talk. That was four years ago.  Mateo also recounted that one of his elementary school teachers told him he’d have to use his Dynavox forever. It turns out that Mateo wants nothing more than to prove that guy wrong!

Mateo is profoundly speech impaired.  At 15, and nearing 6 feet tall, his verbal speech is only intelligible to very familiar listeners and only at the level of a word or two when the context is known.  In the later elementary school years, we made the decision to concentrate his therapy time (at school and at home) on becoming a competent AAC communicator.  Over the years, we’ve tried to tell Mateo that he may always rely on technology to be able to communicate the depth and breadth of everything he has to say.  We never told him to give up on that “real” voice of his, but we wanted to be realistic too.  He’s complained from time to time “I hate having to use technology” and we always told him how grateful we are that this technology is available to him.  Where would he be without it?

The emphasis has always been on his language, literacy and social communication. We’ve seen Mateo shine more than ever before.  He’s been developing very lengthy, complex and grammatically correct sentences to express everything on his mind (or so we thought).  Gone are the days when we constantly have to prompt him to tell us more.  Now, we often joke that we need to work more on developing that filter to prevent him from saying anything that comes to mind.

Here’s the comment that hit me with the hardest force:

“I think that maybe God saw me and said he is going to talk with a Dynavox.”

So I asked him, “What if that was part of God’s plan for you?” and he said, “Well, that makes me feel very sad.”

Next, I asked him to tell me what he doesn’t like about talking with his Dynavox and he explained that he can’t always say what he wants to say.  When I pressed him for an example, he couldn’t give us one. Maybe that was an example right there or maybe this was just a really tough conversation and he needed to take a break from it.  I’m not sure.  Frankly, I was overwhelmed and struggling to keep it together myself.  This will be a conversation that will be continued over time.

The fact that Mateo could express all of this to us in a crowded Mexican restaurant (using his Dynavox, I might add), tells me that he will continue to make connections in the world in any way that he can.  Mateo will continue to prove to every one of us that he has a voice and he will use it.  Maybe we will begin to hear his “real” voice more.  I’m certainly game if he’s willing to work at it.

I am so grateful that Mateo reached out to tell us what was weighing on his heart today.  After all, he’s a typical teenager and he took the time to have a very real, very difficult conversation with us.  And I’m humbled.

Lessons learned from Camp (posted on PrAActical AAC)

Wow!  What an honor to be invited by PrAACtical AAC to submit a guest blog about Camp ALEC!  Many, many thanks to Carole Zangari for letting me share my experiences and some of the many lessons I learned.  I included stories from the amazing week spent last summer with campers and educators who traveled from all over the U.S. and Canada to be a part of our first year.  You’ll also find some tools, such as spelling boards and information on helping kids get published on TarHeel Reader.

Here is the link to my guest blog:

http://praacticalaac.org/praactical/aac-goes-to-summer-camp

Applications are coming in for Camp ALEC 2015, which will be offered August 9-15 at the beautiful barrier-free Indian Trails Camp in Grand Rapids, MI.  If you’re hoping to send your child to camp, please get your application to us soon. Adults are also welcome to apply because this camp is NOT just for kids! We promise teachers, SLPs and administrators a week–with literacy experts Drs. Karen Erickson and David Koppenhaver and some of the world’s most spectacular children–that you will never forget.  Educators who have already attended a week-long Level 1 training with this dynamic duo are eligible to apply.

Here is the link to Camp ALEC:

https://campalec.wordpress.com

What I learned from camp

It’s been a week since I returned from Camp ALEC.  I’m still trying to wrap my brain around everything I experienced and learned throughout the week.  I do know with absolute certainty that Drs. Karen Erickson and David Koppenhaver are the most amazing educators I have ever met.  I knew they were extraordinary individuals when my dear friend Gina and I first approached them about conducting this literacy camp for children with complex communication needs.  I had seen the impact their work had on my son Mateo when he attended a similar camp in Minnesota for two consecutive summers.  But it wasn’t until I saw them in action that I TRULY appreciated that they wholeheartedly share the same commitment to changing the world as we do.  And I will forever be grateful for this incredible opportunity to learn from them and collaborate with them.

This was the first Camp ALEC and the first camp of its kind offered in the United States. Together, we gathered 15 campers and 14 educators, speech-language pathologists and school administrators from the U.S. and Canada at Variety Club Camp and Developmental Center in Norristown, PA for a week of reading and writing assessment and interventions–plus a typical summer camp experience.   Each camper received a total of 17.5 hours of individual and small group assessment and instruction throughout the week.  The goals of Camp ALEC included building the skills of the adults who participated and determining how the campers like Mateo can be supported in further developing their reading and writing skills during the coming school year.  At the conclusion of camp, parents had an opportunity to have a conference with their child’s educator,  as well as Karen and David, and left with a report detailing the results of their informal reading and writing assessment and instructional recommendations.  Our hope is that parents will share those recommendations with teachers so that they can implement evidence-based instructional strategies that will ensure greater progress in school.

I cannot express the joy I felt watching our campers work with David, Karen and the educators throughout the week.  These amazing children and young adults came to camp ready and willing to work HARD and have a blast while they did it.  Many of our campers had never been away from their families on their own before.  We witnessed homesickness and it broke our hearts.  We tried our best to comfort these kids while learning from veteran camp counselors about tough love.  This was particularly challenging for us “Camp Moms” and we got ourselves into a lot of trouble trying to maintain a balance between nurturing and pushing the kids to ditch their cell phones and embrace the entire solo camp experience.  I am so incredibly proud of every one of our campers!

Throughout the week, I began to question my decision to leave the schools–at least for now–to work in a hospital outpatient pediatric rehab setting.  Truth be told, watching these educators work with our campers often made me wish I were headed back to my own classroom in a few weeks.  But I’ve absolutely loved my new experiences at the hospital where I am working with children before they even enter the school system.  Here, I can begin to help children find their voices earlier!

“If a functional communication system has not been put into place with a child, his only recourse is behavior.” – Dr. Temple Grandin

Down the road, I’ll share specific strategies for helping children with complex communication needs build independent reading and writing skills.  For now, I’m just basking in the glow of this beautiful experience, catching up on some sleep and beginning to plan our next Camp ALEC!  Stay tuned!

Language + Literacy = Empowerment