How We Met in the Year of Bubbles

Picture of the top of the Speak for Yourself office desk.

On the day Renee and I met, I was annoyed that she was there. It wasn’t her fault. She didn’t know. My annoyance had been building for almost two years by the time she walked into my world.

Every year around this time, I reflect on the events that led to the creation of the Speak for Yourself Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) app. Tomorrow (December 21st, 2017) marks six years since Speak for Yourself was released. I did a Scrapbook post a few years ago. This post describes why we created SfY.

Today, I’m taking the time to tell the story of how Renee and I met, which also contains a cautionary tale about AAC evaluations. “Get an AAC Evaluation” is a frequently repeated piece of advice in many of the online groups. My guess is that the speech-language pathologists who give that advice are excellent AAC evaluators. That’s not always the case.

An AAC Evaluation is only as good as the evaluator.

In 2006, I was the speech-language pathologist in an autistic classroom for five-year-olds. I was there every morning, five days a week for two hours (then I went to the middle and high school). Two of the children in that classroom were nonverbal and had no form of communication. The teacher and I worked together to make them communication books right away. In October I wrote justifications for both students to have an AAC evaluation. They were finally evaluated…right around April of 2007.

The evaluator used one Dynavox Series V device and one reinforcer…bubbles. I started to sweat. One of the guys didn’t mind bubbles, and he would occasionally even use his communication book to ask for them. The other guy actually avoided bubbles. He most frequently asked for gross motor activities…a walk, the swing, the yoga ball. So as you might have figured out, the first guy happily asked for bubbles and looked at the evaluator expecting the bubbles. The device was recommended.

When it was the second guy’s turn, he looked at the page with all of the “bubble commands”…and he ran away. He came back and when the evaluator attempted to prompt him to say “bubbles,” he handed me the “run” icon in his communication book and ran. I explained that he wasn’t really a fan of bubbles. I asked if she could find “run” or “walk” or “go” because he loved that. No, she said, the bubble page was her evaluation setting.

She said even if he doesn’t love them, he should be able to tact (label) them.

She said he wasn’t ready and that he didn’t understand the purpose of the device.

That evaluator recommended continuing to use the communication book.

The evaluator was the AAC expert. I left that day and cried, knowing that this little boy, who was completely capable, wasn’t going to get a device because I didn’t teach him to care about bubbles. I didn’t know that was going to be the test.

If You Can’t Beat Them, Teach Him to Love Bubbles

When I asked for a re-evaluation, the case manager told me I had to wait a year…an entire year before this little boy had a chance to use high tech AAC. Devastating. I asked if we could have a different evaluator. They said, “No, this is who we use.”

The next day, we started playing with bubbles. I incorporated them into everything he loved. He would ask to walk and I’d take him for a walk outside (his favorite) so we could blow bubbles. He started asking for a “walk” and then “bubbles” because he knew we had to go outside so that we didn’t make the hall slippery. My excitement was way more than a bubble request warranted.

Every couple of months, I called that AAC Evaluator to update her on this little boy’s progress. I wrote excited e-mails about his “bubble evolution.” I worried that she would say no again. I worried that he would have a bad day next time she came. When I was with him, I talked to him about how he would learn how to say other things…he just had to show her he could talk about bubbles first. It felt stupid coming out of my mouth. I told him I was sorry. It shouldn’t be that way. Sometimes adults are wrong.

When the re-evaluation was finally close to being scheduled, I called the evaluator again. I shared that I was concerned about him having a bad day or not doing it for her, and she said she was sure he was ready. I was hopeful.

The case manager sent me an email a couple of weeks before the evaluation and said they had scheduled it…but they went with a different agency. My heart sank.

A Life Changing Day…For My Student and Me

So, on that morning when Renee walked in for the intake meeting, there was dread in my soul. But we sat down to meet about the student prior to the evaluation (which we hadn’t done the previous year). We talked about the things he loved and didn’t love. She asked questions and we told stories about all of the smart things he did. She laughed and took notes, and I started to relax.

After the meeting, I stayed to talk to her. I told Renee about the bubble fiasco the previous year. I asked if she used something specific in her assessment because I was going to introduce it to him before she came back to do his evaluation. She laughed and said, “No, I just use whatever he likes.” Then she said, “I’m going to try systems with him until we find one that works.” I seriously almost cried with relief.

The morning of the evaluation, I finished with another student and peeked in on Renee and my guy with a table full of devices. My student was happily skipping around the table and reached his hand out when he saw me. Renee waved me in and said to the student, “Come show Ms. Heidi what you’ve been doing to me!” My student ran over to the device and quickly used it to say, “You go!” and Renee ran around the table, faking exhaustion. The student laughed, and then said, “I go,” and he ran around the table back to the device. Renee beamed with pride, and said, “Did you know he understands pronouns!?”

“I did,” I said. “We use them to say who is going to blow bubbles.” We both laughed and shook our heads.

Becoming an AAC Evaluator

As luck would have it, the department that did AAC Evaluations was looking for a new evaluator. Renee tells people that she stalked me to come and work with her. In actuality, she called me a couple of times. She gave me her supervisor’s phone number. When she mentioned it, it resonated with me immediately. I loved AAC and I wanted to be the type of evaluator who would say, “I’m going to try systems until we find one that works.”

The timing was right for me.The kids I had been working with for two years were all going in different directions. The deciding factor for me during the interview for the AAC Evaluator position didn’t center around hours or salary. I negotiated to continue to support the children from that autism classroom, who were now learning to use AAC. Especially that little guy who had to wait an extra year because that first AAC Evaluator wasn’t the expert he needed.

The Rest is History

Trying to take a picture in Los Angeles with uncooperative wind.

When Renee and I met that day, we didn’t know that we would create an app. We didn’t know that we would start a business. From that very first day, our friendship was easy and natural. Professionally, we were immediately in sync. Our foundation was strong and fun, and from that Speak for Yourself was – and is – able to grow.

Creating, keeping, and maintaining Speak for Yourself has not been all smiles and daisies. And that’s okay…we knew there would be weeds. You won’t see pictures of us with tears in our eyes. You won’t see the times we sat together silently, neither of us knowing what to say. But those difficult times are the reason that we can read each other’s thoughts in a glance. They are the reason we have absolute trust in each other and our commitment to Speak for Yourself and the people who use it.

That first day I met Renee, I was annoyed that she was there. Every single time after that, I’ve been grateful.

Thanks to all of you who have learned and grown with us over these last 6 years. We look forward to 2018 and wish you and your families joyous holiday celebrations!

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2 Responses to How We Met in the Year of Bubbles

  1. Lisa and Bo says:

    I’m sitting here in tears, wishing you all the best!

  2. JC Tucker says:

    Dear Heidi and Renee
    Anytime you are having a down moment, you need not ONLY trust in each other but trust also in those of us (AAC-SLP’s) out here that give thanks every time we trial Speak for Yourself with a student and watch their communication EXPLODE !!!! Ya’ll are changing way more lives than you will ever know :0) both professionals and students and families. Your dedication and compassion for individuals with complex communication needs is reflected in your AAC app Speak for Yourself !!!! Even the name of the AAC app SHOUTS …………. I CAN SO THIS !!!!!

    Respectfully Submitted,
    Joan “J.C.” Tucker
    SLP Dallas Texas

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