On the last day of the school year after 4 weeks in this school, as I inventoried my caseload, there was one child whose code I had not cracked. I was concerned. I wore long sleeves in 80+degrees because it was my day to see him. He made no verbal sounds that anyone could identify, couldn’t hold an object in his hand without assistance, and tended to scratch the adult with him. My passion is, as you may know, something called AAC, which my son uses to communicate, in his case via iPad and an app (for more information on what he uses, click here.) The iPad “speaks” for him because essentially his own vocal tract doesn’t respond to his commands and intent at all well.
The district I’m in now, however, follows rules which
strictly limit children’s “screen time,” meaning no television babysitters or canned lectures, and their access to cause-and-effect toys, which are useful when a child cannot speak. So I had been leaving my touchscreen AAC devices and touch-button toys at home, bringing velcro’ed, laminated pictures instead. Most kids like them.
But laminated pictures make no sound.
It being the last week, I had begun to take liberties, however, and had already used my iPad for all sorts of vocabulary lessons with children in general education. This iPad is mine now, but it was my son’s very first one (the iPad 1), old and heavy. The app my son uses for communication includes various levels of “vocabulary sets.” A vocabulary set is an interlocked set of screens with pictures that, when touched, say a word or phrase and show its spelling, or navigate to another screen. The “Things” button goes to a menu including buttons for more choices, such as “Toys” and “Food.” The “Food button in turn offers “Breakfast,” “Fruits,” “Vegetables,” Meats,” and there to pictures of “fish” or “burger.” You can “say it again” by pressing a speech bar at the top that holds the spelled message.
Using an iPad for communication at home requires a parent or student to take care of the equipment, charge it, and run updates. In school, breakage and loss are less likely. Several students in this school clearly had used touch screens, but this child had not. Furthermore he had dropped many of my toys. For many reasons, an iPad was not my first or second choice for him.
However, tour hands are always with you and never need a charger. So I
started to have this boy request (“give me”) by touching his open, flat hands to his chest. At some point when I had been showing him sign language, I realized his limp arms were not responding to my touch at all. I had tried to get him to understand that sign language really is a way of “saying” things. He was not producing the signs with floppy arms and hands, so while he might learn to point eventually, he wouldn’t today. I only had him with me today.
So I held him with me for a longer session than we had ever had. I wasn’t going to let him end the year until he’d experienced the joy of communicating clearly. We started to use the iPad to “say” various things, my hand holding his. In a picture of Beach, you could “say” sand,” “water,” “ball,” and in the page of “needs,” you could say “break” and “I need a break.” He began to touch the iPad independently to make it respond. I’d tell him to “Say it again,” which meant touching the letters at the top so the iPad would repeat it for you. I’m not sure how far into this exercise it was, but he became very calm. He focused and stopped moving or flopping. He didn’t scratch me for the rest of the session.
I don’t know how much of he understood, but he stopped getting mad when I told him to “say” something.
Children who cannot speak may not understand the words we say a lot of the time. They do often understand the emotion and intention behind what we are saying. With the utmost sincerity, certainty, and calmness, I told him,”This is how you say things. Your mouth doesn’t do what you want. I know. It’s hard. You say it with the iPad.”
Softly, at a speed about 5-7 times slower than typical slow speech, he said,”I want iPad.” I will never be able to prove that he said that. I do not need to because I understand what he meant. I told him, “You will be fine.”
I had kept his group an extra half-hour. It was a half-day. In fact it was the last day that school building would ever again be filled with students. It was antique and closing permanently. “We may see each other again. You will be fine,” I said as we went out to the playground. I knew he does not understand the conditional word “may,” but I was talking for myself more than for him. And who knows. Maybe we will.