How we learn to talk

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I have just done a two day course on a system that I hope will help Sam communicate with us and everyone else.

Communicating is one of Sam’s biggest challenges. He has a lot to say, but his severe disability hampers all of his efforts to tell us what he thinks or wants: he can’t speak, he can’t point, yet he understands a lot.

He has found highly effective ways to get round this day-to-day. He can smile or frown, laugh, shout or show us his bottom lip (the degree of protrusion of the lip is directly proportional to his sadness, on a spectrum that ends in full-blown sobbing). Whingeing indicates dissatisfaction. Looking expectant means ‘I’m interested’.

Sam has the intellect to express far more sophisticated ideas and desires than this – but he needs the tools. So we are working with Sam’s school and a number of speech and language therapists to maximise his opportunities, using Assistive and Alternative Communication, or AAC, the term used to capture a whole range of communication systems that don’t rely solely on speech.

Everyone involved in this effort comes together at a termly review meeting. Last week that involved eight professionals sitting around a table for several hours discussing progress. The combined level of expertise is immense.

And partly because of all of this input, Sam is doing brilliantly. In last week’s meeting someone pointed out that (PROUD MUM ALERT) Sam’s spelling is on a level with his non-disabled peers, so it’s important to not push him too hard. He already has to work much harder than a typical kid to spell consonant-vowel-consonant words but he’s doing it – on an eye-gaze computer or by looking at magnetic letters with Granny.

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The major new communication concept we are introducing to Sam is a PODD book, developed by an Australian woman called Gayle Porter, a minor celebrity on the aided language scene.

PODD books are full of symbols that you point at to express yourself. The ambition is that Sam will eventually be able to show us which symbols he wants to ‘say’ (video of a child using PODD here).

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The success of using aids like PODD books is totally dependent on the expertise of the people surrounding Sam. The course I was on last week was an attempt to increase my confidence and knowledge.

I came away enthused. This has huge potential for Sam. But at the same time I’m nervous, intimidated even. I took away three main insights from the course that really highlighted how big an endeavour this will be:

1. Do we have the stamina to do this justice?

A typical child hears spoken language for at least 18 months before they start talking (over two years if you’re Sam’s brother Eli). It therefore follows that we should be modelling use (otherwise called ‘receptive input’) of the PODD book to Sam for at least a year before we expect him to be using it with us. If we were really to mimic normal acquisition of speech, James and I would use it to talk to each other in front of Sam.

At the course we were shown totally inspirational videos of young children communicating, in ways that just would not happen if they hadn’t been taught to use PODD. But … in some of the videos, their mothers (and they were almost exclusively mothers) had modelled use of the PODD books with their children for over a year before their children started interacting with the book.

The level of skill of these women is impressively high – they can navigate expertly from page to page and find symbols really quickly. But even more important is their level of determination. They have dedicated years of their lives to teaching their kids to use PODD books, even when the kids weren’t apparently engaging with them. It is hugely inspiring, but also massively daunting. What if we’re not committed enough? What if we get bored and demoralised, and that means we fail Sam?

2. You can’t learn a language if you’re placed on mute

If you think of the PODD book as Sam’s way of talking, then you have to have it available to him all the time. Otherwise you are effectively silencing his voice. It is close to the equivalent of gagging a verbal child to stop them talking.

We are already guilty of doing this: we introduced Yes and No symbols on Sam’s chair so he can look at these to answer questions. A few weeks ago, the No got puked on, the sellotape got wet and the symbol fell off. Despite daily good intentions, I still haven’t got round to sticking it back on. And I haven’t got round to putting the Yes and No symbols on his wheelchair.

I introduced an opportunity for him to tell me things and them I took it away. Shit.

3. This needs to be a whole family enterprise

On the course I also saw videos of young children using PODD books really competently with their disabled siblings. Eli is really trying to work out the rules around him at the moment and where Sam fits into it: for example, ‘big boys’ walk and babies don’t, but Sam is a big boy and doesn’t walk (cue confused/amazed face). We’ve had discussions about whether Sam can hear Eli talking, because normally people talk back when they hear you, but Sam doesn’t talk.

Eli already talks to Sam on his terms – he says ‘night night’ to Sam every night and waits for Sam to look at him because he knows that’s Sam way of saying goodnight back. When Eli asks Sam a question he says, ‘Sam, can I play with your Peppa toy, YES OR NO’!

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Eli could easily pick up the way a communication book works (the photo above shows him at 18 months getting interested in one), but only if he sees us using it. We have to normalise it within our family, even if the wider world insists on only speaking to each other.

I should reiterate that I really am filled with enthusiasm – the PODD system has been thoughtfully developed and children exactly like Sam have learnt to use it proficiently. But, oh my goodness, what a weight of expectation. Remind me of this blog in a year, when my enthusiasm for pointing at symbols might be wavering and I need to remember that we knew we were in it for the long haul.

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3 thoughts on “How we learn to talk

  1. Wow! Where to start?
    First, hugely admire you for attending that course. We bought a program called Proloquotogo and struggled for a while, along with Pecs cards but have failed miserably to engage. We have a son who is adept at making his wishes known and is, at last, beginning to verbalise though.
    Please don’t consider the Yes/No thing a failure. By the sound of it, Sam is using what you’ve taught him and may not need them as he associates direction with meaning now because he can communicate yes/no with his brother.
    We are dealing with the questions you mention from the little one. Our seven year old still can’t quite grasp why her big brother crawls, wears nappies and can’t say much. My 13 year old asked me the other day if Ashley will “grow out of it”.
    Look forward to your future posts.

  2. It sounds like you did the same 2 day course that I did last year – I also found it super inspiring! We started with the PODD about 2 years ago and love it. Like you said, it’s a big family commitment, but totally worth the time and input. Good luck!

  3. Pingback: How we learn to talk (part two) | Stories with Sam

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