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From Choice to Voice

Dylan’s expressive language development has been a slow process filled with lots of patience and consistency, before suddenly a new way of communicating would emerge, sometimes even many years later. Can you relate?

One example is the use of Dylan’s picture symbols. Dylan has receptively understood key symbols for years and they have been very effective as part of his anticipation calendar. Since his earliest IEP’s, a routine has been incorporated into his calendar routine that allows for choice making, yet Dylan did not point to or hand us a symbol to express his choice. He did push away the symbol he did not want. (Yes, the Communication Matrix clearly shows that expression of refusal comes before expression of want.)

Then one day at home, when a choice was offered, he nonchalantly reached out, took the symbol he wanted and handed it to his Intervener. With our mouths hitting the floor, we quickly honored that choice, as we wondered if today was a fluke or if he would do it again. Over the next week it became clear that Dylan had made the jump. He was now consistently choosing the symbol he did want. We asked ourselves, what are we doing differently that he is now expressing his preferred choice? Is there something we could have done earlier that would have helped him make the jump sooner?

The only answer I can come up with is control. Many of you may be familiar with the adage, follow the child. At 17, an educational program was set up for Dylan with following Dylan’s interests at the center. Our curriculum was created around his primary interest - Dasani water bottles. We incorporated the receptive modes of communication that were working for him, picture symbols, co-drawn symbols, visual American Sign Language, co-sign, and co-drawing, into our interactions. We set up the environment to maximize his vision and meet his sensory needs, established routines, and continued use of deafblind principles and practices that are essential for Dylan’s learning.

Yes, we started with his likes, but our responses were dependent on what Dylan’s body communicated was working for him and what wasn’t. As we adapted an activity, or continued a theme, or accepted Dylan’s need to lie down for continued productivity, based on these subtle communications, I believe Dylan learned that he did have a choice. Then came the day at home—where the communication routine had not been changed—when Dylan started using symbols to tell us what he wanted to do in his free time.

Everything we’d been doing at home and school before the new program had been effective communication strategies - we still use these strategies. Yet it appears that for Dylan, the increased opportunities for him to experience all levels of his communication being responded to, and the corresponding sense of perceived control gained from this, have led to Dylan beginning to initiate the use of his voice in the world, in new and exciting ways.

In the next posts, I will talk more about Dylan’s communication through co-signing, co-writing, and co-drawing and how those shared experiences, along with Dylan’s new found self-determination, have helped expand Dylan’s ability to communicate about the past, the present, and the future, and to explore new topics.

Description of Dylan’s portable communication system

We found a blue plastic card to provide good contrast and to be sturdy enough for lots of use. The back has Velcro for attaching 2 or 3 symbols for Dylan to choose from. Once he has selected a symbol the card is turned over and Dylan adds the cue to the sentence strip on the front. The sentence consists of cues that depict how Dylan is traveling (Brown Truck), where he is going (his choice) and who is going with him (Deb and Mom.) A later version has symbols for first, second, and third. Underneath is Velcro for Dylan to place 3 symbols. For example it might say 1st horseback riding, 2nd park, 3rd home.

Dylan's hand is posed to pick a symbol from his blue choice card.

Dylan, holding a water bottle in each hand is pulling his hat onto his head.  His look says, I am ready to go.

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