Polly was eighteen years old when I became her teacher. Surprising, as it might seem, she was in high school and did not have a viable communication system in place. She had been dropped from Speech Therapy years ago for lack of progress. That often happened to nonverbal students in the district where I worked. It was part of the criteria that I obviously did not agree with.
Polly was everyone's friend. Most of the students and faculty knew her. She did not have any problem initiating, particularly when it came to social interactions. By pointing and using gestures, she would say hello or comment on a person's hair style, clothes, and accessories.
Like many nonverbal students, Polly had significant movement difficulties, both gross and fine motor. It was difficult for her to throw or catch a ball or participate in physical exercises. She could not tie her shoes, print, or draw on her own. I feel much of that could have been alleviated by motoring and slow removal of prompts until movement patterns became automatic.
I introduced PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) to her and she took to it easily. I began by having her select pictures to request her desired breakfast items. When she was proficient selecting the pictures, I provided facilitated support, as I had her type the names of the items on the pictures at the same time. Within months, she was typing the words independently and handing me the communication device or using a voice output device. She no longer needed to select the pictures since she had a propensity for spelling. Polly was highly motivated and continued to use a communication book to learn how to spell new words. Since she demonstrated this progress, the Speech Therapist, was able to have her reinstated in Speech Therapy for augmentative communication needs.
Unlike most of my nonverbal students, who hit the keys independently, Polly did not need me to hold the keyboard or be in her proximity. She could communicate with a wide variety of people both at home and school. She typed with true independence.
It is important to mention that even though her vocabulary of printed words quickly expanded, her independent typed communications showed language deficits similar to verbal students diagnosed with moderate autism that I have worked with. Obsession on calendar skills, photographic memory, narrow area of interest, pragmatic and syntactic language difficulties were apparent.
What differentiated Polly from my students who were unable to make that final leap to independence? I don't know since she certainly shared their movement issues. I suspect it might have been her ability to initiate and her intense desire to interact socially. Using it in conjunction with PECS from the beginning, I suspect had an impact.
Polly was independent and I wanted to keep her that way. On a rare occasion, Polly joined two of my supposedly very low-functioning nonverbal "agent/facilitator" dependent students who typed. I passed the keyboard around the group as the three of them took turns typing: "Great teacher of untrained thought encompasses our reality by entraining our souls to join as one regulating the transmission of commingled thought bereft of time and and space yet clear and fluid." It was interesting!
Lessons from Polly:
Some students are highly motivated once given a vehicle for their expression.
Ability to initiate and/or socially interact may be necessary component for students to become totally independent of an agent.
Strategies to develop initiation of action or verbal attempts should be incorporated throughout the school day.
Movement difficulties need to be addressed early and consistently. Motoring and repetition is key!
Some nonverbal students, who type with total independence, may show language deficits and perseverations similar to verbal students with autism.
Some students, even though independent, may illicit more profound communications when "joining" with others.
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