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 Awareness Month and Talking to Strangers

Fall is my favorite time of the year.  October is special to all of us because it is AAC Awareness Month and we love to tell people how proud we are of Mateo. Today, his speech-generating device enables him to say exactly what he wants to say to anyone in any environment.  But he’s had to work very hard to be a competent communicator.

When Mateo obtained his first device at the age of 4, we were sure he was the only one who spoke like he did.  Mateo felt alone.  We felt alone.  But over the years, largely because Mateo attended Camp Chatterbox for AAC users, we found a family.  We grew to know and love children and young adults who communicate like Mateo.  Mateo was introduced to mentors who helped him become more confident with his voice.  I wish every child had a mentor.  As a SLP, I encourage my families to network and to reach out to other families traveling this AAC journey.  It’s easy to feel isolated when your voice is so different.

Now 17 years old, Mateo is a confident communicator.  Because he’s able to say anything that’s on his mind, he’s also able to be more independent and on his own in the community.   He’s outgoing and extremely curious. He has no issues striking up conversations with strangers.  My husband and I are both introverts by nature.  Mateo reminds me of my father and big brothers — always anxious to meet someone new, make a friend and tell a story.  As a small child, we certainly cautioned him about talking to strangers, especially when he was still struggling to communicate.  Now, we encourage him to make connections on his own.  It’s still a little scary for me, but I’m so very proud to watch him do this over and over again.  Sometimes, he initiates the conversations and, on other occasions, strangers approach him because they’re curious about how he’s talking or because they have a family member or friend who uses a similar voice.

At Disneyworld, Mateo approached a teen who was waiting in line with his family directly behind us.  A Cavs fan, Mateo couldn’t help but comment on the teen’s Golden State Warriors shirt given his beloved Cavs had just won the championship in a tough matchup against Golden State in the finals.  I watched as the young man responded to Mateo’s initiation of the conversation.  For a brief moment, he seemed surprised and maybe even a little bit uncomfortable.  He recovered quickly and responded with enthusiasm, respect and genuine interest. They had a great conversation about their teams!

In a hospital waiting room, Mateo asked a family sitting beside him where they were from.  He told them about his home town and, before he left, he wished them a healthy day.

But it’s not just Mateo kicking off conversations.  Often, strangers observe us talking in a restaurant or a store and approach HIM.  This weekend, an elderly man walked up to him and introduced himself. This stranger explained that a parishioner at his church recently obtained a similar AAC device and how it’s been life changing.  They ended up discussing their rival high school football teams.  On many occasions, Mateo is approached by strangers who tell him, “My son uses a thing like that!” or “My cousin talks with a computer too.” I think that people are drawn to Mateo because they want to know they’re not alone. 

There IS more awareness of AAC.  Mateo is working to win over new listeners and make people comfortable with his voice every day. I asked him recently what makes a good listener.  Here are some of the things he said:

  • Wait while I create my message
  • Look at me while I’m talking
  • Remember that I’m doing the talking, not my computer
  • If you don’t understand what I’m saying, don’t pretend that you do (I can tell when you fake it)
  • Ask me questions and I’ll tell you more
  • Just LISTEN!

Mateo recently told us he wants to talk to children about his voice.  He’s working to flush out what he wants his message to be and we’ll try to help him achieve this dream.  It’s who we are.  We are an AAC family.

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.

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