As speech language pathologists working with AAC, we are privileged to meet a lot of parents. As part of that privilege, we hear a relatively even number of stories that warm – and stories that break – our hearts.
Every Father’s Day, I think of a story that starts with a meeting about 3 1/2 year old Jack*. Jack’s dad attended the initial meeting and knew everything there was to know about Jack. Jack had a diagnosis of autism and apraxia. His dad said Jack had three word approximations and there were only three sounds he could make, but that his intonation changed and he and his wife could tell what Jack needed…well, sometimes.
It was determined that it was appropriate to start using augmentative and alternative communication (AAC). His dad asked if a device would stop him from talking and I gave him the answer I always give when asked this question: All of the research and my personal experience show that using AAC will only help a child to become verbal. If he is able to develop verbal speech, he will. If he does not start talking, we’re giving him a way to communicate and develop language. Using AAC does not mean that you are giving up on verbal speech.
His dad (and mom) attended every training and Jack thrived. He quickly started putting words together on the device and he started saying words verbally. His mom started to write every new word he said in a book, and everyone else did the same. Jack started putting words together verbally and forming longer sentences on the device. It was magical, not only for his parents, but for everyone involved.
At Jack’s last monthly meeting for the school year, his dad told this story (as I remember it):
My dad would always take me to Boston for a Red Sox game right around Father’s Day (Boston is about a 5 hour drive).
When I had a son, I always said that I would continue this tradition with my child. I wanted to take Jack last year, but I was worried because he couldn’t tell me what he needed and his mom is better at speaking “Jack” than I am, so I didn’t take him. This year, since he’s been able to say some words (he was using about 200 words verbally at that point) and use the device, I decided I would take him to a game, so we went last weekend.
I bought us matching shirts and hats and we talked about it before we left. We told him it was going to be “guy time,” and Mommy was staying home. Jack was excited and so was I because this was something I had thought about from the very first time I held Jack in my arms.
We made it to the game and Jack’s eyes were huge with wonder as he looked at the stadium. He asked me for popcorn, cotton candy, water ice, a hot dog…and of course I reinforced everything. When he pointed to the foam finger and said, “Hand please,” I bought that too.
We got to our seats, and I looked at my son with every type of food that they sell at a baseball stadium and several souvenirs. I took it all in because, this was my moment. I sat down next to Jack and thought of my dad, and I wiped tears from my eyes through the top of the first inning.
When the visiting team finished batting and everyone clapped, Jack looked at me and said, “All done. Home.” I explained that the game just started and that we still had more time. Jack listened and ate more cotton candy, but after the Red Sox were finished batting, and everyone clapped again. Jack stood up as the players were running off of the field and said, “Daddy all done.” So we left after the first inning, but we did it without a melt down because he could tell me what he was thinking.
Everyone in that meeting simultaneously wiped away our own tears and laughed. As parents and professionals, these are the stories we are working towards each day. So when AAC works in a dream-come-true kind of way, it’s life-changing.
I think that strong dads give their children exactly what they need, when they need it. I’d venture to say that Jack’s dad would have been his baseball coach, a dance dad, or a chess opponent, if that’s what his son needed. His son needed him to learn technology to be able to help him communicate, so he did.
If there’s one thing I can say that I think is true of almost every parent of a child with special needs, it’s that they don’t take anything for granted. Dads of “typical” children most likely did not get teary-eyed when their child ran past them and wished them a Happy Father’s Day. They attended a baseball game with their son without a thought as to whether or not their child would be able to communicate their needs and wants. This weekend, we’ve heard from several families who have a child who is nonverbal, and the child has been able to say “Happy Father’s Day” for the first time this year.
For some dads, the words are the gift they’ve always wanted.
*Not his real name.