Stop being incredulous; start presuming competence

“You’re not going to believe this!” “Did that just happen?!” “That’s unbelievable!” Seemingly innocuous, these common expressions are close cousins to some much more dangerous phrases that also run rampant in the special education community: “He can’t do that,” “She’ll never be able to crawl, let alone walk,” “We won’t be able to teach her anything – especially not language.” “He doesn’t know what that means.” These incredulous attitudes prejudice a low bar for therapeutic, educational, vocational, civil and social achievement.

The self-fulfilling prophecy is a well-documented phenomenon in the field of education and yet there seem to persist a myriad of hoops through which an individual must jump to prove their readiness to learn a new skill, for example, many children are made to demonstrate knowledge of meta-linguistic skills (such as categorization, literacy or parts of speech understanding of which always occur after language has developed) prior to being given a speech-generating device (SGD) to allow them the opportunity to learn language. So in this scenario, the evaluators will prove that the student is not ready for an SGD merely because s/he does not have an SGD. Even deeper into this argument is the almost laughable fallacy in which a beginning communicator’s poor language skills are blamed for their limited use of the device and not for the device’s limitation in vocabulary; an SLP colleague met with some teachers who expressed frustration with their shared student’s lack of progress on the SGD saying “Gryffin only ever uses it to ask to go to the bathroom or to use the computer.” Shocked, the SLP responded, “Well, those are the only two buttons you’ve given him to use! What do you expect?”

We often run into tautological arguments from teachers, parents and therapists when presented with a novel task or program that appears to be too challenging for the student. The conversation generally follows a similar flow:

Us: We think it would be worth letting Indy give this a try.

Them: Indy can’t do that.

Us: Oh, what happened when you tried?

Them: We haven’t tried because he can’t do it.

Us: Okay, so how about we just give it a try?

Them: No. He can’t do it.

This messy circular reasoning and dangerous assumption will inevitably lead to the worst possible outcome: “they” are right.

The best clinicians (meaning the most realistic ones and the ones yielding the greatest results) have adopted the philosophy of task specificity. There are no external tasks, unrelated testing procedures or even thought-to-be requisite physiological structures or functions that have shown themselves to be reliable predictors for acquiring linguistic skills. A beginning communicator easily uses the words “jump,” “my,” “little,” “that” and “oops” long before knowing to what part of speech they belong; a two-year-old with severe hypotonia can defy her physical therapist and physicians’ predictions that she will never crawl within a few short years; a girl born without a tongue can learn to use the base of her mouth to articulate and manipulate a bolus; a boy who would have failed a test of abstract pre-requisite skills to receive an SGD gains those skills plus literacy, social interaction AND spoken language after a few years of using the device; a girl with severe craniofacial anomalies who was neglected for six years in a orphanage and three years making minimal progress at a rural school combined two words on an SGD the first time she had one despite her adoptive parents being told “It’s going to be AT LEAST A YEAR before she is even ready to have AAC introduced to her;” the countless individuals who have uttered their first words at 12, 15, even 45 years of age, defying all normative data in existence. These individuals have wide varieties in their skills and deficits but together they teach us the extent to which expectations can be defied and poses the exciting question: what if we set the bar higher for everyone?

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