2001 Conference Proceedings

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Closing the Gap: Awakenings for the School Team to a 16 Year old Autistic Student’s DynaMyte Teen Talk

Froma Cummings, Jolene Madden, and Elizabeth Bolar
Scottsdale Unified School District
Scottsdale, AZ

What happens when the private “team of experts” recognizes greater communication richness/potential than the less experiences home school team? Learn the strategies used to engage the home team in developing interactive communication pages. Understand the support necessary to assist the home school team integrate appropriate communication strategies into their classroom day.

Complete paper: Todd, a 16 year old autistic high school student, heightens our awareness of those not so uncommon circumstances when the “team of experts’ recognizes greater communication richness than the less experienced home school team. This history of the search for total communication strategies dates back to his toddler years.

Todd was very fortunate that, when his development seemed to deviate from that of a typical child, his mother’s best friend was a highly respected Speech and Language Pathologist. Ellen recognized that the child’s language and communication patterns were developing differently and urged Todd’s mother to seek medical consultation and early intervention. Todd’s early intervention, even at the initial stages, was directed by an ‘expert’ in the very young field of augmentative communication.

Photo album pictures illustrate Todd communicating to his grandpa using picture communication boards with familiar photographs. There are pictures using communication placemats and a variety of communication boards across environments. After a move to Arizona and enrollment in an early intervention center, Todd participated in programs at the SPEAC center, using state of the art computer software for early intervention and early communication. Todd’s mother became an advocate for her son and his expressive communication growth reflected the efforts of the Assistive Technology specialists, classroom staff and very diligent family.

As technology grew, Todd’s communication strategies included the use of Picture Communication Symbols and an early ZYGO Macaw. It became evident that Todd communicated most with persons who respected him and he and his mother continued to seek out this communication environment. There evolved a communication climate of success with some communication partners and withdrawal from others. It is not surprising that Todd, when presented with an original DynaVox, told the AT specialist that he prefers strawberry yogurt and eagerly carried the device to the yogurt store to voice his choice. Todd continued to grow his language, using the Canon Communicator with selected communication partners and holding the congregation captive using his Words + Pegasus Lite for his Bar Mitzvah. When he appropriately targeted the buttons to voice the prayers and yawned during the longer Hebrew prayers, non-believers became believers, respecting Todd’s rich communications.

As the transition from middle school to high school approached, it became evident that Todd’s ongoing communication strategies may not be adequate for the real time speed of communication in the high school environment. The mother again sought out a ‘team of experts’ to assess her son’s strengths and needs and make recommendations for the most appropriate augmentative communication device. The home school team preparing him for this transition did not recognize the richness of communication that was evident to the more experienced assessment team. Todd’s mother was faced with a dilemma - did she accept the view of the home school team re: her son’s communication capabilities and compromise what she believed to be true or did she actualize the recommendations of the AAC specialists who understood her son’s strengths and needs and further grow his communication? The latter, quite obvious choice, however, had significant baggage attached to it. It would create a greater gap between what was being provided to Todd in the classroom and what she perceived to be his abilities.

The recommendations made in the July 1999 report, for a DynaMyte with PCS, was funded by the family’s private health insurance carrier. The device was taken to the high school during Todd’s freshman year and the home school team firmly disagreed with the recommendation. Their assistance was sought in page design and they offered pages with 12 buttons - quite a variance from the successful scrolling searches Todd had used to communicate with the AT specialists. Communication partners at school believed that Todd could not use this device to communicate effectively, while, at home, Todd was using it to talk about the previous night’s baseball game.

This scenario reflects a major fallacy of the expert model because, as we all agree, each school team should be a team of experts. When there is such a wide discrepancy between the knowledge of the prescribers and the everyday implementers in the classroom, failure seems inevitable. The case is further complicated when the home school team has not seen Todd’s successful expanded communications and their limited experience in AAC is magnified by a lack of vision for the student.

The AT specialists’ task was to close the gap between what Todd was asked to do at school and what he was capable of doing with his selected communication partners. Todd himself took the initiative to demonstrate his communication strengths. One day the AT specialists were visiting with Todd in the classroom kitchen prior to a meeting. Pizza had been ordered in and Todd desired more than his allotted share. He used his device to argue his point that there was pizza left so why couldn’t he have more? He then focused on an attractive peer mentor and engaged her in conversation about what she had done the previous night. When he responded appropriately using the pages designed by the AT specialists, the typical high school student was not the only person listening. Classroom staff members were wildly impressed.

As time approached for the meeting, Todd was asked if he wanted to join the group. He picked up his DynaMyte and strutted into the conference room, conversing with his familiar communication partners along the way. In effect, Todd directed the meeting and demonstrated his abilities to communicate effectively using this communication device. Buy in from the home team was increasing, but not complete. The action plan included increased participation in page design, ongoing support from the school district’s AT team and continued encouragement to the school that they listen to what Todd had to say.

As summer approached, it became necessary to develop a plan to maintain the communications with a representative of the school team in Todd’s social recreational program. The department chair was the designee and she met with Todd during the summer to converse in the camp program and elsewhere in the community. She became a believer and entered Todd’s elite circle of respected communication partners. This transferred back into the classroom in the fall. Concurrently, Todd’s mother sought out private Language Therapy with funding through the Department of Developmental Disabilities.

The process continues with the design of additional pages and collaboration of what is appropriate language for a high school sophomore. There is now a real “team” between the home school team and the district AT specialists. The home team more frequently recognizes Todd’s successful communications and Todd, recognizing their respect for him, interacts with them on a higher level. Todd has welcomed the home school team into his circle of communication partners. As an added bonus, the home school team more confidently implements suggestions provided by the AT specialists and the home team has gained skills which they also implement with other students. Todd and his mom continue to drive the program and changes in the communication pages are made only with Todd’s concurrence.

This presentation is about Todd’s mother’s decision to accept the recommendations of the private clinicians, procure device funding through private insurance and then seek strategies for “closing the gap” i.e. assisting the home school team to elevate their expectations of the student’s communication skills. Participants in the session will understand the following:

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