No lesson here, just reminiscing. I have a client, age 13, with moderate-to-severe developmental disabilities. Very social, loves music, loves simple word games such as being asked what sound various animals make, or asking me my favorite color, etc.. I generally see her for 3-5 hours a week, and have done so for the past two years. And just the other day, I had a very disquieting thought. It occurred to me, suddenly, that I probably understand more of what she says than anyone else in her life. Which is both unacceptable and understandable.
You see, in addition to assorted other disabilities and delays, she has a very profound speech impediment. She sometimes uses an iPad to communicate, but not often, and not with much fluency. She prefers speaking verbally. And, provided I pay very close attention and have had enough coffee, I can understand perhaps 75% of what she says. I don’t think anyone else in her life gets more than 50%. Teachers and therapists aren’t in her life long enough to learn. Her parents, in addition to being very busy people, are not native English speakers. They speak English quite fluently, but when you’re trying to decode speech based on minimal clues, there’s no substitute for having grown up with the language.
It’s not just the fact that her pronunciation is hard to understand. There’s also her unique patterns of speaking. She tends to drop consonant sounds, even the few she’s capable of making when she really tries. She drops words out of her phrases, syllables out of her words. And she speaks in the way people jot down notes to themselves, where a few key words stand for entire thoughts or requests. This is where it’s necessary to know her very well, because even if she pronounced those words perfectly, much of her speech would still be utterly mysterious to someone who doesn’t know what she’s referencing. There’s often quite a lot of guesswork even for someone who does know her.
If she comes to me and says “bus” (a word she can produce reasonably intelligibly), she might mean “I want you to make the sound of a bus” or she might mean “I want you to sing Wheels on the Bus.” Even if she says “I want bus,” I know she isn’t asking to ride on a bus. Sometimes for the song, she’ll say “duh bus” (the bus) or add the “round and round” gesture used in the song. Her BIs are working fairly intensively on getting her to give more information in her speech, so now sometimes she’ll say “sound bus” when she wants the sound. And if we’re already playing “make sounds of things,” it’s a good bet she wants a bus noise. She’s also pretty good with simple yes/no questions, so I can just ask. This is pretty simple. And many of her other shortenings are relatively easy to pick up, too: “A B song” is the alphabet song, “Gaga face” is Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face,” and what sounds like “Fie uh wayn” is Adele’s “Set Fire to the Rain.” “Uh dime it?” means “What time is it?” Some of her abbreviations make a lot of sense, especially for someone who struggles with pronunciation– cutting out articles and other words that aren’t as important to the meaning of what she’s saying. Others are less sensible and actually interfere with the meaning of what she’s saying. I don’t know if those happen because she doesn’t want to try and say certain words, or if there’s an actual cognitive disability in terms of her ability to recognize or remember or think in full sentences. Probably some of both.
Sometimes figuring out the reference is pretty hard. I often run though handfuls of guesses before hitting on the right one, and then I have to remember what that particular phrase means again in the future. Not as easy as it sounds, especially when many of those phrases are very similar, or sound very different from their correct pronunciations. When she asks “How was your day?” it often comes out sounding like “Wuh woo they?” I never would have figured out what it meant on my own; the BI who taught her that question filled me in on what she was saying, and I had to hear it a couple of times before it stuck in my mind. It doesn’t help that she sometimes ask “What’s today?” (as in, what day of the week is it), and it sounds pretty much the same. The way she says “color” is identical to how she says “flavor” (and I have no idea how to write it!). “White” and “grey” can both come out sounding like “why.” Something that sounded like a cross between “hammock” and “omelet” turned out to be a request for “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.” So I have to guess at what sounds she is trying to produce, what word or phrase or part thereof those sounds are meant to represent, AND what she’s trying to convey by using those particular words.
Sometimes she finds a way to give me clues, sometimes not. Once, she asked over and over for “ghee ew up,” to my utter confusion. My brain started trying out possibilities: Giddy-up? Something about horses? Do I know a song about horses that I’ve sung to her before? (Many of her requests are for songs, which at least gives me some idea where to start). Or maybe it’s something about getting up. Is she asking me to help her get up? “Give it up,” perhaps. Is that a song? It might be a pop song I don’t know; she listens to a lot of pop music. Maybe I’m assuming word breaks in the wrong places. The last two syllables could be “Europe.” All along, of course, I’m saying things like “I’m sorry, I don’t understand, can you tell me another way? What is it?”
Finally she added a gesture– clasping her hands and swinging them back and forth. She had to do that a few times before I finally was able to make the mental leap to a song we’d sung together a few weeks prior. She was asking for “London Bridge is Falling Down.” Really. Here’s the logic: her favorite line in the song is “Take the key and lock her up, my fair lady.” (And sometimes, when I’m feeling energetic, I hold hands with her on that line and swing our hands back and forth.) So she was quoting her favorite line, but omitting most of the words, leaving her with the phrase “key her up,” which I was only able to figure out once I knew what she was asking in the first place. Sometimes at this job I feel a bit like a cryptographer. Or a linguistic anthropologist.
Another time, she said what sounded like “WUH wiggen.” No clue. She said it a few more times, but I was drawing a blank. Sadly, I can’t get her to add information by asking things like “What is it?” or “Can you tell me more about it?” or “Can you show me on your iPad?” but experience has taught me that sometimes she can answer certain yes/no questions that help me narrow it down.
(And rarely, wonderfully, if it’s a song, she’ll try and sing it for me. Her singing is beautiful, but not much more comprehensible than her speech. She only ever pronounces the final syllable of any line, the rest being filled in with moderately accurate vowel sounds with “w” substituted for the consonants. And while she can hold a note pretty well if she’s singing along to the radio or YouTube, when singing alone she’s very quiet, and the melody fades the same way the lyrics do, only bubbling to the surface briefly in places. Still, I love her singing, and there’s always a special thrill when she hits a line in the chorus and I finally recognize what she’s going for and start singing it with her and her face lights up with a smile about a mile wide.)
But this wasn’t one of those times.
“I don’t understand. Is that a person?” I ask. Could she have a friend at school named Mulligan or Brannigan or something like that?
“WUH wiggen,” she repeats.
She says it again, “WUH wiggen.” I admire her persistence. And sometimes, if she says something enough times, my brain will finally match her sounds up to actual words. The cadence helps a lot. But sometimes, we both just end up frustrated. Sometimes I work to get her attention onto something else instead, if I really don’t have a clue.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know it. Pick something else.”
“WUH wiggen.” She’s starting to look annoyed, and I can’t blame her. Could it be a game?… An animal?
“Is it a song?”
“Yeah.” Finally, a clue! But I can’t think of any song titles that match up. It could be anything from a nursery rhyme to a new release. The odds are against me, but serendipity is on my side. I somehow finally parse the words as “love again,” recognize them as belonging to the line “we can learn to love again,” and cross my fingers.
“Just Give Me a Reason? Is that what you want me to sing?” And finally, there’s the smile. Phew! I think she heaves a sigh of relief along with me. I laugh at the utter absurdity of the mental journey we’ve both just taken in order to reach common ground. And yeah, I’m feeling pretty good about myself for figuring that one out.
By the way, the song is completely out of my range and I only know about half the lyrics. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t even try to sing it in the shower, much less where anyone can hear me. But I know that exchange was hard work for her as well as for me. I know it’s stressful for her to try over and over to make someone understand, with no guarantee of success. In short, she’s earned it. So I give it my best shot. Top of my lungs. And she smiles and smiles.
I wish more people in her life could decipher her speech too, but how could I ever explain to someone how to decode her communication? How could I teach them to seek out those mental leaps? I don’t even know how I do it, or how to improve. There’s no secret formula for this, no easy answer. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve failed at understanding her requests. Innumerable apologies for innumerable disappointments. Or the times I’ve figured something out, and then forgotten it on another day.
I’m proud of the times I’ve succeeded. I’m proud of her every time she figures out a way to give me more information. The leap from just saying “bus” to saying “sound bus” is huge. I still don’t know that she could go up to anyone and say “sound bus” and be understood, but it’s definitely progress. I’m sure that eventually she’ll be able to say “make sound of a bus,” and then she’ll be able to request it from anyone, not just the handful of people who know her best. I’m looking forward to that day on her behalf.
I just got finished reading this excellent article: http://www.assistiveware.com/are-our-assumptions-about-autism-and-aac-all-wrong
Fortunately, I’ve only once seen a case where an autistic client’s AAC was used in the horribly restrictive way that this article warns against. I have also been privileged to witness some wonderful AAC uses, and I’m in the process of learning how to encourage even more.
But let me back up a little here and tell a story.
The family cat enters the living room and my client perks up and points.
“At!” He says excitedly, “At!”
“Yes,” I say with an encouraging smile, “That’s a cat.”
“At,” he repeats.
“Cat,” I agree. A few minutes later, just in case I had forgotten, he points at the kitty again.
“At! AT! AT!” He looks extremely proud of himself, as though he has just discovered (or possibly invented) the entire idea of cats.
“You’re so smart. It IS a cat.”
“Yow,” he adds, grinning from ear to ear.
“Yes! Cats say meow!”
“Yow. Ow. At.”
“I see that.”
This client wasn’t one of my Respite kids. He was a typically developing toddler. And I suspect anyone who has ever had a toddler has had many conversations of this type. This is by way of reminding you what “normal” language development looks like. Lots of labeling. Lots of repetition. Lots of speech that, while not meaningless, seems rather purposeless.
So why on Earth, when an autistic child does this on their AAC, do people call it “stimming” and take the device away? Or worry that it is inappropriate, problematic, or inhibiting learning? And even if they don’t object, they certainly don’t engage and respond, much less encourage. And I think they should.
A client with some fine motor difficulties forms odd sentences on a device, inserting the word “iPad” at intervals, so it might read something like “iPad I want iPad park iPad swings.” Watching this, I develop a theory. I think the “iPad” button is being used as a home base, a starting point, a reference. “I know how to get to the ‘park’ button from ‘iPad,’ so I’ll make sure I start at ‘iPad’ first.” This 7-year-old had invented a strategy to help overcome difficulties with motor planning… a strategy that could easily be overlooked or considered a “mistake.” Kids are often much smarter than we give them credit for.
A pre-teen client relaxes on the couch, casually exploring her AAC program. She has a lot of pre-programmed phrases. “Hi, how are you?” “I’m fine.” “My name is Suzanne.” “Call me Suze.”
“Hi Suze!” I say. I want to acknowledge her words, even though I don’t think they are actually directed at me.
“How are you?” The device asks, and she answers it herself, verbally. “I’m good!” It looks almost like she’s having a conversation with the device… Talking to herself, as it were. Maybe she’s got an imaginary friend. Or maybe she’s practicing. I used to practice saying things in the mirror all the time. This kind of “non-meaningful” device use has never interfered with her ability to also use the device “properly” for communication. And she’s enjoying it. People learn better when they’re having fun.
“My name is Suzanne.” says the device. “Call me Suze.”
I’m making toast for an 8-year-old client while his family relaxes in the next room. This kid is very smart, but doesn’t use AAC as much as we’d like. I suspect it feels very limiting to him, as he’s a very precise person. But he finds ways to work around the problems. Sometimes they are downright ingenious.
“I want to eat toast toast toast.” says the device.
His Daddy smiles and sighs, “Don’t worry, buddy, you’ll get your toast. She’s making it for you.” Daddy thought he was just asking for toast. Again. Three minutes after the last time he asked. Daddy thought he was pestering.
“Yup! Toast coming right up!” I enthused. I thought he was just excited. I figured this was his way of saying “Yay! Toast!”
His 10-year-old brother, however, understood something that neither of us adults (both of whom are pretty close to him) even considered.
“He’s telling you he wants three pieces of toast.”
Oh. Toast toast toast. Three toasts. Of course. I’m so glad there wasn’t a therapist there to “correct” him. The repetition had a specific meaning. I wonder how often we miss the messages intended by the WAY in which our clients use AAC, messages we probably dismiss as quirks, oddities, or mistakes.
A year later. The same client has a newer AAC program, one with more flexible grammar and a much larger vocabulary. But he still doesn’t use it for much besides simple “I want” statements. And I don’t know how to encourage it, but here are a few things I’m trying:
- Using the device myself, in his presence. It’s hard, and time consuming, trying to express thoughts this way. Several times I’ve told myself I’ll only use the device and not speak for a given length of time… and invariably, I’ve failed and resorted to speech. That tells me a lot about why exploring the device during downtime is so important. You need to learn your way around so that when you actually want to say something to someone, it doesn’t take you ten minutes to locate all the words you need. I’ve said serious things and silly things and simple things. “I like music.” “I know this is hard work.” “You rock!” I’ve used it to ask him questions. He doesn’t answer often.
- Inputting the beginning of a sentence, such as “I like…” or “I feel…” and handing him the device so he can finish the statement. He’s done so once or twice. Not usually, though.
- Carrying the device around, and handing it to him when he seems to be trying to express something. What active 10-year-old is going to walk around holding something that size? Or any size? Something that fits into a pocket might work. Or having the device always set up in a specific spot so he can run over to it whenever he needs to. That can work at home and school and maybe the playground, but I realize that it’s a serious logistical issue. If you had to put in the effort of finding something or going to another room every single time you wanted to say something, how often do you think you’d bother for minor things?
He and I relax at the laundromat while his Mom goes to pick up his brother from practice. We both enjoy watching the laundry go around, hearing the regular swooshing of the machines. I find “washing machine” on his device.
“Washing machine. Washing machine.” Verbally, I add “I like watching the–” and complete my sentence on the device. “Washing machine.”
He looks up from the machine he is currently watching. I hand him the device, show him how to navigate to the “washing machine” button, under Appliances.
“Washing machine.” He says, then puts the device down.
“Washing machiiiine” I repeat verbally, drawing the word out, exaggerating. I giggle and he smiles. I pick up the device and find “dryer” next to “washing machine,” with an identical picture.
“Dryer dryer dryer.” I write. He looks at me, smiles. My own voice echoes the device. “Dryer.” I point at the dryers in the laundromat, even though I’m quite certain he already knows which is which. I hand him the device. I point to the button that says “dryer” and repeat the word verbally again.
“Washing machine dryer washing machine dryer dryer dryer” he writes.
“Cool,” I say verbally, “I like watching the washing machine too. And the dryer. But especially the washing machine.”
Doesn’t this conversation sound… familiar?