Dan (actual name withheld) was in the 5th grade, his final year before middle school in my district. I had been his speech therapist for almost six years and had little in the way of progress to show for it. Dan is a nonspeaking person with autism.
As a kindergartner, Dan had a low-tech core vocabulary board. Later he would go on to receive an iPad with the Lamp Words For Life app. Dan was a pretty easy-going kid who always went with the flow. In exchange for his easygoingness, Dan only demanded a daily snack and lunch prepared in a precise fashion. Dan examined his food the way a diamond merchant would look over new rocks. What an eye he had! (Back to that later).
Dan received aided-language input and countless opportunities to communicate. But he rarely used his device independently. Mainly, Dan activated an icon after an immediate model. He was trying to please us the best he could.
Then one day, something interesting happened. During a morning transition, I had asked another student what the cafeteria was serving for lunch that day. Without missing a beat, Dan answered on his talker, “pizza.” The teacher and I exchanged shocked glances. Dan was right- I checked the printed menu posted in the room. A moment later, I asked Dan if he knew what was for lunch the next day. “Chicken,” he replied. What about the next day? “Tacos.” Dan had memorized the week’s menu. He had viewed and committed it to memory. And none of us had any idea.
In the coming weeks, Dan would become a more consistent user of his device. His talker allowed him to answer questions and make basic requests. He did not put words together or reach anything close to SNUG, but what a jump in progress he made!
In mid-2011, I completed the 5-day PODD training course taught by Gayle Porter and Linda Burkhart. For those of you not as familiar with PODD, it views the success of AAC users as being heavily dependent upon aided language stimulation (AgLS). In 2021, the idea of AgLS is a no-brainer. But back in 2011, it was still gaining traction, as was the notion of core vocabulary.
Anyway, sometime in late 2011 or 2012, I attended a separate training presented by Linda Burkhart. I had a pressing question about AgLS that I needed to ask Linda about. During a morning break, I approached her with this question: How long does one provide AgLS before expecting to see results? Let’s say you have a student on a low-tech board who never looks in the direction of your modeling attempts and never expresses a body language that would indicate progress. How would I justify that to the team? Linda answered that you have to model for the long haul and that it could be two years before getting a “motoric” response (2 years being an arbitrary number). In other words, for many kids, it just takes time.
Linda was right. I rarely if ever have had a student in need who did not benefit in some way from AAC. The problem is we as providers cannot provide a specific timeline for growth. In 10+ years of working in my district, I can tell you that everyone is genuinely different. Dan’s case, while extreme, is not necessarily unique.
So what’s the takeaway? It’s the all too familiar maxims of autism:
- If you’ve met one kid with autism, you’ve met one kid with autism.
- It’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon.
We have a long way to go with AAC’s application to autism. While most of my nonspeaking students have made at least modest gains in functional communication skills over the years, SNUG has been elusive.
But we go on, trying to learn from our students, our mistakes, and our preconceived notions of who we think our kids are in the first place.
Here’s to a better 2021-22 school year!