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.

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Fringe Makes Me Cringe

Happy Better Speech and Hearing Month. It’s finally May and I’ve been reflecting on what this career has meant to me personally. To those SLPs who have worked with Mateo and helped him accomplish amazing things, I thank you.  To those SLPs who encouraged me to embrace this incredible career and continue to inspire me every day, I thank you.  And to those families who allow me to work with their children, I thank you. I am deeply touched that you trust me and let me be a part of their story.

So, I took a journey into the past again recently–when Mateo was very young and I was a mom still learning about AAC. Back then, I spent hours and hours programming weekly vocabulary and spelling words on his device. For every science unit, I made sure there was a page that contained words like cumulonimbus.  It wasn’t until much later that I realized that back then I didn’t view his Dynavox as a means for him to communicate anything he wanted across his life time.  I did not program his device in such a way that he could achieve spontaneous novel utterance generation (or SNUG). Instead, we were primarily focused on whether he could simply respond like everyone else in the classroom.  Once that unit was done, we often wiped out that vocabulary list to make room for the next one.  We thought we were leveling the playing field by giving Mateo access to the same words as all the speaking children.  Looking back, maybe we were in denial and hoping this was something temporary.

Now I cringe at the mere thought of fringe vocabulary. It makes me absolutely crazy.

AAC devices must be built around core vocabulary, words that we all use all the time every day. We want communicators to create spontaneous novel utterances and they can do that if they have access to these core words. Core vocabularies consist of words identified as being important for an individual to express anything they want to say across activities,  environments and communication partners.   With a few hundred words, a person can say over 80% of what is needed.

We use just 50 words 40-50% of the time
We use just 100 words 60% of the time
We use just 200 words 70% of the time
We use just 400 words 80% of the time

For school-aged children, there is a temptation to customize communication devices and apps like crazy, often with an emphasis on vocabulary that is introduced in the classroom.  The device is then used as a means of assessing a child’s acquisition of these concepts. Children can be given access to fringe and academic vocabulary using a word bank or word wall, if needed.  Better yet, we can model language in the classroom to help children build on their core language communication while still demonstrating their understanding of academic concepts.  It means changing our mindset as communication partners.  As a result, the child will gain more practice in using their core vocabulary and become a more competent communicator.

Let’s contrast two science discussions:

Scenario 1
Teacher to AAC learner: Name the biological process that results in a caterpillar changing into a butterfly.
AAC learner: Metamorphosis (using pre-stored fringe vocabulary)

Scenario 2
Teacher to AAC learner: Tell me about metamorphosis.
AAC learner: Caterpillar change and turn to butterfly (using all core words)

As parents and professionals, we must give children words they can use to communicate anything they want to say every day.  A parent asked me this week, “Do you think he will gain enough speech to be able to express his needs?”  This child is three years old and we’re introducing AAC.  My response: “Maybe, but whether or not that’s the case, that’s not enough for me.  I want more for him. I want him to tell me anything he wants to say.” 

Thank you to cross country runner #9 — and to The Mighty for sharing my blog

When The Mighty asked for submissions about strangers reaching out to demonstrate kindness, I knew I wanted to share the story of an extraordinary cross country runner whose simple act of sportsmanship touched my heart.

Thank you to The Mighty for sharing our story and many others. They give me a sense of community and restore my faith in humankind every day.

Here’s our story:

http://themighty.com/2015/02/dear-high-school-cross-country-runner-9/

If you like to smile and read about good people doing simple things for others, take a moment to follow The Mighty. I don’t think you will regret it even for a moment. Kindness matters. Every day.

Here’s the link:

http://themighty.com/

True Inclusion

So there is a push for more and more inclusion these days.  One body of evidence supporting this trend is the pressure placed on intervention specialists and speech-language pathologists, for example, to deliver services in the general education classroom.  Some professionals are uncomfortable with this model and others are diving in head first.  For many, I think, both their enthusiasm and fear place them somewhere in the middle.  The more I think about it, though, the more I’m convinced that inclusion has little to do with where services are delivered or how.

I’ve been watching our son Mateo run cross country for his third season in a row.  His first seasons were spent in the 7th and 8th grades of middle school.  We were encouraged to have Mateo join the cross country team by a principal and our special education director back then.  It didn’t cross our minds for a moment, despite the fact that Mateo has a runner’s body and a whole lot of energy to expend.  We had our concerns, but Mateo was willing to give it a try so we jumped on board.

Unfortunately, no one informed the middle school cross country coach of this plan and she was utterly ill prepared.  Before his first season even officially started, she tried to turn Mateo away from practices.  She said she couldn’t properly supervise the team PLUS him.  She cited a fear of him getting injured (couldn’t any runner get injured?) or getting lost (he is a human GPS) because he’d fall so far behind the other runners.  Suddenly, a team that had been a “no cut” sport for years and years had criteria that had to be met in order for a runner to make the team.  And this same coach told me very clearly that she didn’t think Mateo would be able to make the team.  Well, he did exactly that.  And he proved this coach was wrong on his own. Still, we cited our concerns to our superintendent and director of special education, armed with documents from the Office of Civil Rights regarding inclusion in extracurricular and athletic activities. Truth be told, we always felt that the teachers and administrators were supportive, but having Mateo on the team was simply out of the comfort zone of this particular coach.

The coach insisted he run with an adult aide in races “for safety” despite protests by the entire IEP team, the assistant coaches, and Mateo himself that this support was not needed.  Finally, for the last race of his 7th grade season, he ran solo.  Well, kind of.  Unbeknownst to us until later, the coach had asked a high school runner to accompany him since the IEP team formally determined once and for all that he should run on his own and she still disagreed. But he ran on his own in 8th grade and got stronger and stronger with each race.

Mateo ran for the middle school for two consecutive years, despite this coach, and never finished a race last.  He finished his first middle school race as a 7th grader in 19:20 and completed his last race as an 8th grader on the same course in 13:32.  His finish time improved in every race.  Mateo’s successes didn’t soften this coach in the two years he ran with this team.  I can count on one hand the number of times I witnessed her speak to him.  It was heartbreaking for us to talk to him about the situation.  We were honest and admitted that there are simply people out there who think he is not capable.  We encouraged him to prove to that coach (and anyone else standing in his way) what he can do while acknowledging that we cannot change people.

Despite the role model set by this particular coach, his teammates stepped up.  They accepted him as a member of the team.  We watched as members of his own team encouraged him on the course during races, shouting to him, “Stay with me, Mateo!” as he tried to keep pace or, better yet, “Come on and pass me, Teo!”  We were stunned when runners and family members from other teams cheered for him by name. We often overheard other spectators comment on his improved time meet after meet.

Fast forward to this year.  Mateo is now a freshman and a varsity cross country runner.  He began practicing with his high school team in June.  We learned about a four-night running camp the entire team was expected to attend. When we asked his new coach about it, it was simply assumed Mateo would be there.  It’s true, the coach admitted he was a little nervous about it.  He asked questions about Mateo’s diet, his method of communication and his needs.  But here’s the difference: the coach talked to Mateo about all this.  Together, they made a plan to ensure that camp would be successful for the entire team and Mateo was part of the team. Mateo came back from camp with dozens of pictures of his teammates taken with his iPad, new campfire stories, a pile of unbelievably smelly laundry and a bunch of new friends.

Today, Mateo returned from an overnight meet in Columbus.  He didn’t go on his own only because you can’t keep Manuel away from his races.  Mateo had an entire cheerleading squad made up of his incredible big sister, Madeline, an uncle, an aunt, cousins and extended family and friends who live in the area.  Mateo achieved another personal record, shaving off a minute and a half from his last best time.  He ran his fastest mile ever and finished the 5K race in 23:06. By comparison, he finished his first race of this season in 28:59. He is getting stronger and faster.

He is 100% a member of his varsity cross country team.  He is joined at meals by his teammates.  He’s congratulated by the entire team for his successes and he does the same for the other runners.  He attends team dinners, joins conversations, huddles up with the guys for meetings, pitches in for fundraisers and works his butt off at every single practice so that he can perform better and better with each race. He commiserates with the other runners over sore muscles and bad test grades. They give him a hard time for sitting with 8 girls at lunch every day. He’s just one of the guys.

Today, Manuel told me that he observed Mateo approach his varsity coach and his coach pulled him in for a hug and quietly said, “love you, buddy.”

I think inclusion is a conscious decision.  I think it takes an open dialogue and considerable planning.  I don’t think it’s easy but the pay-off is HUGE for everyone.

On a slightly related note, our director of special education asked Mateo to deliver a short presentation before our school board to give the members some insight into AAC.  Mateo thought about what he wanted to say for a very long time and put a lot of effort into his message.  His speech was open and honest and he delivered it this week with such confidence and dignity. I’m grateful to our school board for listening to his voice.  His words were absolutely from the heart.  Here’s the link:

http://youtu.be/dY3UvMigc3c

October is just a few days away.  It’s AAC Awareness Month.  I challenge everyone to take a moment to imagine not having the ability to speak.  Think about spending just a few hours without talking.  In fact, ditch your paper and pencil too because so many of our children who cannot use their natural voices also struggle for years and years to obtain access to a reliable means of writing too.

Language + Literacy = Empowerment

You know, it’s occurred to me that this blog isn’t at all what I expected it would be. But then, my journey is taking me on all kinds of wonderful twists and turns.