Our conversation last week left me unsettled. I know you probably gave it a lot of thought before you approached me. You suggested that I provide augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) consultation in the home because they could probably use the support there. Yes, I would love to, I said. I’ve messaged mom and offered, but she doesn’t respond. If you talk to her please mention that I’m not scary or demanding. You smiled, but I saw your face. I’ve seen that look. It’s the weary expression that says, “I need this off my plate.”
I know he is your “easiest” student. He’d be content to sit complacently until someone is ready to work with him or someone tells him to do something. I know he’s your most compliant, and even if he protests at having to get off of the computer to work on something else, his protest is “No!” But if you insist, he says “okay” with a smile.
You said he goes to the device during his “academic programming,” and when I’m there, his programs take longer to finish. I know that they do because I model the words for him and he pays attention. You said he doesn’t need his device during his programs because all of his programs are receptive. I think that if that vocabulary is important enough for you to teach every day, then it would be great for him to be able to generalize and use what he has learned.
You said the device was distracting because he doesn’t use it appropriately. He just keeps asking for people. Or he says the same few characters over and over again. He’s using it as an escape, you said. I thought about it, and you’re probably right. He’s directing the topics to the things that interest him instead of participating in his “programming.” He is using it as an escape.
But did you hear that? He’s using language to escape something he doesn’t like as much! Instead of swiping papers off of the desk, he’s trying to change the subject! I get it. It’s probably annoying when you just want to get through the necessary academic work. Ever since we added that aide’s picture last time, I know our student said his name 74 times.
But did you notice that aide’s name is most difficult for our student to say verbally? He loves to verbally approximate the names of the adults in the room and then sweetly say “hi” to them. He seeks social attention, and your classroom staff acknowledge him. They say “hi!” They ask how he is. His face beams. It was challenging for him to spontaneously have that type of interaction with this aide because his name was too hard to verbally approximate. He’s using his device to connect with that other adult in your room. That’s really special.
Did you notice that he says names of people who are NOT in the room? When someone walks out, he says his/her name. Maybe he wants to know where they’re going. Maybe he’s telling you they left. We’re never going to know unless we teach him to say more than just the name. Did you know that when he went to occupational therapy the other day, he looked at the substitute OT and said the name of his occupational therapist who just went out on maternity leave? He’s making associations. He’s asking about people in his everyday life. It’s exciting!
In the beginning of the year, you told me that he doesn’t want anything to do with his peers. Do you know the other day, when we were sitting on the mat playing and he said another student’s name…that student looked at him and smiled? I asked if he wanted that student to play with us and he said, “yes” and handed him one of the toys. When the student walked over to us, our guy moved so that he could sit on the mat. Did you see that? He’s learning to be a friend.
He’s only had access to AAC for a few months. Remember that first week when he didn’t want to carry the device with him? Remember when he would try to put it in his desk when he left the room? He doesn’t do that anymore.
Last week, when I found your class on the playground, he walked over to the bench where he had hung the device. He put it around his neck completely independently. He stopped in the hallway to tell me something on his device. He’s generalizing communication to different settings. Our student knew that we wouldn’t mind stopping in the hall if he had something to say. We taught him that what he has to say is important. He trusted that we would give him the time he needed.
You suggested that I could work with him and do a “manding session.” I said we could do a communication session. He can do more than request. He is using his device to recognize repeated lines in a book and “read” those lines. Did you hear him say, “Chicka Chicka BOOM BOOM,” on his device when he saw it written on the page? He told me he wants Sid the Science Kid stuff and Elmo playing a drum for Christmas.
He told us he was “scared” over and over when everyone was talking about swimming. His hands were so shaky, but he went to the device to tell us how he was feeling. We don’t know why he’s scared. Is he afraid of going under? Is it too loud? We have to teach him more language so that we can know what’s scaring him. Do you realize how HUGE that is? He told us how he’s feeling…in the moment.
So I’ve been thinking a lot about this since our conversation. You know how you said he doesn’t need the device during his programming time because all of his programs are receptive? And I said that’s because when those programs were established he didn’t have a way to participate in expressive language activities.
Did you notice that during the community helpers program, when he’s told to “Touch dentist,” he sometimes goes to the device to say “dentist”? Sometimes he verbally approximates it. And that’s not the only one. He’s trying so hard to be “expressive.” I know that the only data that’s being kept is about whether or not he points to the dentist, but can we change that?
I know that everything is data driven. Maybe you’re not seeing all you’ve done for this student because there’s no data sheet to track it. Can you imagine the data if we had tracked “student will independently carry his device as he transistions between school environments?” Or if we put every adult’s and student’s names on a sheet and tracked data for “student will expressively identify adults and peers within his school environment.” At this point, I think it would all be “mastered.”
Can we make some naturalistic teaching programs around communication? We talked about targeting words around your themes. We talked about ways that he can expand his communication intention when he says someone’s name. Can we brainstorm some of the reasons we think he’s saying their names (they left, they’re out sick, where is ______?) and start modeling them?
He likes all of us and wants us to be proud. He wants to talk to us. For so many of the students I see, motivating them to communicate is the challenge. For this student, the challenge is to teach him more, set higher communication expectations, and give him the time to put together what he wants to say. This classroom is the right place for him to make significant language gains. This is the time to expect and foster his expressive language. He’s ready. He doesn’t have time to wait for next year’s teacher to target communication. You are the exact teacher who can make a difference in his life. You’re already doing it.