“No matter the abilities of those with communication differences, there is something out there for everyone. The world of communication is nearly endless. With the help of progressing technology and innovative professionals, every individual should be able to exercise their personal right to communicate. I encourage you to advocate for those who do not yet have their voice. I encourage you to seek out the growing resources to support these individual’s abilities to help find their voice.”
ID: Guest blogger, Emily Husney and Bridgeway Academy student, Kyra are seated next to each other in matching navy Ohio Autism Acceptance shirts. Both are looking at the camera and smiling.
As I sat in the brightly colored room surrounded by murals of exotic animals, I found myself in astounding curiosity toward the communicative ability of the young boy in front of me. Using his AAC device, he could spell out his favorite restaurant along with its many Columbus locations; yet, he struggled to articulate single speech sounds that we often take for granted. With every question from his therapist, his eyes lit up and wandered frantically around his communication device. I could sense his eagerness to express the countless ideas running through his mind. It was clear how intelligent he truly was, however the difficulty he faced in expressing his thoughts created an overwhelming wave of frustration. My experience with Alex led me to realize how fortunate I am to wake up each day without a concern in my ability to communicate. I became mindful of those who struggle to express seemingly simple phrases that we use everyday. It was through Alex that I recognized how incredibly different my life would be without communication, and I was inspired to explore the various forms of communication that people use each day to navigate their lives.
My fascination in the world of AAC started at the very beginning of my undergraduate years during this observation at a school for children with autism. From the start of my journey as a speech-language pathologist, my interest has been fueled by the endless ways to personalize and adapt communication systems to meet the unique, individual needs of a person.
A few years after observing Alex, I met a sweet 3rd grade student with cerebral palsy and limited fine and gross motor skills. After meeting Jalayah, I quickly realized that not everyone had the ability of Alex to type on a keyboard with their fingers. However, Jalayah had incredible abilities of her own. Although she was non-verbal and in a wheelchair requiring additional assistance from her school aid, she had many friends in her classroom and beamed with joy from any social interaction with her peers and teachers. She appropriately communicated with them through a radiant smile, facial expressions, and gestures. One of her strongest communicative strategies was using her eyes to answer yes/no questions; by looking up to answer “no”, and looking to her right side to answer “yes”. She could answer a wide range of these questions from “Do you want a drink of water?” or “Does your leg hurt?” She could even answer comprehension questions about a lesson in her class by simply looking up or to her right.
Without using a single word through speech or gesturing the ‘common’ head nod to answer yes or no, she was able to use her abilities to interact across her many environments.
Jalayah was an incredibly smart, young girl. She had the ability to access even more communication than she already had in her 9 years of life, provided the proper access to resources. When presenting her with a high-tech eye gaze communication system, her world of language seemed to open up within a single day’s time. She quickly learned to navigate and use the 40+ vocabulary locations on the screen with the innovative technology and her visual-motor skills. She answered questions (other than yes/no) during her classroom lessons and even led an on-screen book with a peer and teacher—all with the help of her eyes!
The visible joy and happiness beaming from Jalayah was something that I could never forget; all from the communicative power in her hands to participate and socially connect with those around her.
Not long after meeting Jalayah, I was introduced to Connor and Jackson, twin brothers in the 5th grade, who were both born with cerebral palsy and severe cortical blindness. Before the boys, I had not worked with individuals with any sort of blindness. Unlike Jalayah, I knew the twins would not be candidates for an eye gaze system. However, they both had skill sets of their own that would allow them to live their daily lives and enjoy seemingly simple interactions with those around them. I will admit that I was intimidated by the complex case of these 2 individuals, and turned to my supervisor who had abundant experiences with AAC in her career as a SLP.
It was clear that the boys had different skills and needs unique to their own abilities. Connor had some additional motor ability with his arms and head, while Jackson had a stronger right side, allowing him to move his right hand to feel items that were presented to him. They both had incredible hearing that was apparent from their vibrant smiles following any verbal praise or sensory input, such as a simple tickle or hug. The amount of social interaction that they yearned to receive from others appeared very similar to that of Jalayah and Alex. However, I knew that their communication and AAC systems would look fairly different.
Although the boys did not have verbal speech, there were a variety of supports and AAC options to trial with them. We tried a wide range of ideas with them, including both low- and high-tech communication systems: from an infrared head pointer sticker with Connor that would allow him to move his head to activate words or phrases on a screen, to a 3-D object based system with contrastive red lighting and auditory cues for Jackson to select objects that represented preferred or needed items. With some time and teaching, the twins were able to communicate specific activities or needed items that they wished to access. Best of all, they could initiate social interactions with others by greeting or asking for a desired hug.
No matter the abilities of those with communication differences, there is something out there for everyone. The world of communication is nearly endless. With the help of progressing technology and innovative professionals, every individual should be able to exercise their personal right to communicate. I encourage you to advocate for those who do not yet have their voice. I encourage you to seek out the growing resources to support these individual’s abilities to help find their voice.
Emily Husney, M.A., CCC-SLP is a brilliant and passionate speech therapist celebrating her 4th year at Bridgeway Academy this summer. She is dedicated to evidence-based, respectful and FUN service provision for all of her clients and will be an integral part of The Bruce Baker AAC Evaluation Center opening this fall (2021) at Bridgeway Academy. I am thrilled to be able to call Emily a colleague and honored that she wrote this beautiful post about her experience in the area of AAC.