A Myth of Giant Proportions

When I first started working at Growing Kids, I worked with students who were brand new to Spelling to Communicate, as well as some who started with Elizabeth beforehand. Over that time, skills began to build, goals were being met, and fluency was increasing. For the students and for myself, as well! Doing a regular, ol’ lesson was getting too easy. We ALL needed a new challenge!

Mythology has always been one of my favorite topics, and I found that it also was a great way to get students to be creative in their own writing. There is always an interesting explanation of natural phenomena, like the changing of the seasons or how fire was created for man. Most importantly though, there is a moral to every story, a lesson to be learned. I was not quite prepared for the lessons my students taught me with their very own “mythology”. You’ll see what I mean.

With every lesson we do, there is always a “creative writing” question at the end. It’s a chance for the speller to express his/her thoughts on the topic. It’s a chance to be creative. This is always my favorite part of the lesson – personalities really start to shine! One of those personalities, is that of my dear friend, Alex.

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Alex is 17 years old and types on a held keyboard. He had been typing pretty smoothly on the keyboard for a while, and I decided it was a good time to practice typing longer chunks at a time. But I wanted to keep it fun! We were doing a lesson on spirit bears (the white bears that live in Canada) and in it, I included the mythology of the spirit bear. This led to the following creative writing prompt:  Write a myth/story about Spirit Alex! 

The story you are about to read, written by Alex, took several weeks to finish. We started out every session with a lesson to warm-up his arm, and we ended every session with his myth. The result is a beautiful, funny, heartwarming story that teaches a very valuable lesson. Check it out below, and feel all the feels!
Thanks for reading,
-Meghann

The Myth of Spirit Alex:

There once was a time when the earth was ruled by blond haired, gentle giants. However, these giants were not very smart. They often found themselves outsmarted at every village trivia night. They were always very good about losing, very kind and congratulatory to the winners. But inside all they wanted was to win. They decided to consult with their ancestors about what to do. The ancestors told the giants they would help. They told the giants to make bread dough, and to sprinkle it with lemon zest. The giants were to then sing to the dough ball.After their delightful serenading, the giants were to place the dough on the front step and go right to bed.

The next day, the giant named dad woke to crying and went to see what was up.
Lo and behold the crying was coming from the big baby now laying where the dough ball was. Dad yelped with glee and shouted for his wife, named mom, to come right away and see what the ancestors had done. Once mom saw what all the commotion was about she knew this baby was a gift from the ancestors. So, she called him Alexander.
Pinned under Alex was a note and it said:

This baby will teach you many things. First you should know that this baby is unlike any other baby. He does not communicate  like other people and he will say things he does not mean to say. It is up to you mom and dad to make this baby feel loved unconditionally and in return he will teach you both things you never thought were possible. P.s. He is super smart and will definitely help you win village trivia night.
Mom and dad were floored but they were up to the challenge. They scooped Alex up and brought him indoors.

Over the next few years Alex proved to be quite a handful.Dishes were broken, hair was pulled, tantrums were thrown and big messes followed Alex like a shadow. But no matter how infuriated mom and dad were at times, they cherished Alex and continued to let him be his own person.

One day, when Alex was big but not fully grown, he met a wise woman and her sidekick, sensei Elizabeth and master Meghann. They were the diamonds in the rough that was Alex’s and mom and dads life. First sensei E showed the trio the Alex that was trapped inside his giant and rude body. Then master Meg continued to push Alex to be stronger. Before you know it, mom could communicate with her boy at last, and he even made a few good pals.
But no matter how big the progress was Alex still was not ready for trivia night. He was swearing like a sailor, drawing on walls and pulling hair. The people of the village could not understand Alex and therefore did not like him very much. 

The people who adored him, however, never gave up on their doughy boy. Cue eye of the tiger, because they all went rocky style on those disbelievers butts. Days turned into weeks, weeks turned into months. Mom knew she needed to take matters into her own hands.
And that is exactly what she did. Gone were the days of trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Alex was being hurt more than he was being helped by the people in the village who were trying to mold him into one of them, one of the normies. Mom was reminded of the letter left by the ancestors. This baby is unlike any other baby. Of course he was not going to be or learn like other kids, Alex was not like other kids. This was a huge turning point for the whole family.

Alex was inspired now more than ever. No stopping him now. Days and nights passed as Alex and mom worked tirelessly on his social skills. So when the day finally came, Alex was ready to compete in the event. He was on a team with mom, dad, sensei E and master Meghann. They were not at all nervous looking at their competition. Then the bell rang, it was time to start. The first ten questions were too easy for Alex. The next ten were a little less easy but not too hard for Alex. The last round, however, had Alex and the team sweating. He did not know if he knew the answer to the last question. What did Egyptian medics believe was the cure for flatulence? Wait a second, Meghann talked about this. Just then Alex spelled the answer. Leeches. The bell rang, the winner was announced. It was team giant. The crowd cheered and chanted his name. Alex did it.  The end.

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Tribe and UVA Part 2: Social Connections and Friendship

There are many reasons why I love being so involved with Tribe, but the UVa-Tribe exchanges are at the top. As a UVa alum, a friend of Vikram (who teaches the course), and as an educator at GKTC, it’s truly the case of my worlds colliding, and it’s the best thing ever.

GKTC Tribe and UVa undergraduates met on October 28, 2017 for their second exchange in The Science and Lived Experience of Autism collaboration. The theme of the year-long collaboration is Creating Welcoming Communities. 

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In Exchange 1, the students discussed what makes people feel welcome or unwelcome. Following the design thinking process from a separate collaboration with the University of Maryland over the summer, we discussed how to redesign the meet-and-greet experience, which tends to be pleasant small talk at best. In Exchange 2, the students discussed what comes next – “making meaningful social connections and developing friendships.” We welcomed Assistant Professor of Psychology, Matt Lerner, from Stony Brook University, who studies friendship in speaking ASD adolescents.

We kicked off the first round of discussions by comparing how neurotypical people express their interest in social situations:

Ian: I know that there are a lot of expectations during conversation, like eye contact.

Sam (UVA): Facial expression

Flo (UVA): Body language

Madison (UVA): Voice intonation

Ben: Getting a smile from a stranger

Katie (UVA): Asking questions and being active listener

Emma: Leaning in

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Tribe then shared their experiences, particularly not being able to control their body to show interest in a typical way even though they are very much interested and engaged. 

Ryan: How most people interpret my behaviors is very different than I intend.

Ben: I always mean to look interested in others but I do not always meet others’ expectations. Hard enough to make my speech understood, much less make my hardheaded body comply.

Tom: My mouth is always saying something. Please don’t mistake it as a sign of my intelligence.

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What Vikram said in his group summarized things well: “We expect socially interested people to behave in certain ways because that is how we behave – when we’re happy/sad we look like this, expect others to do the same. We all recognize that just because someone doesn’t behave in certain way, doesn’t mean they’re not interested.”

We also discussed social competence, which can be summarized as:

Flo (UVA): Being flexible in different contexts and having an awareness of social standards;

and

Madison (UVA): understanding the needs of your surroundings and needs of other people and matching the needs between them.

Tribe shared their thoughts and experiences as nonspeaking autistics regarding studies that say speaking autistics take more time to process social cues.

Emma: No, [processing social cues is] not difficult, Huan can explain.

Huan: I’m with Emma, having a body that’s uncooperative has its upsides, like being able to process information in our brains rapidly.

Ian: I am completely capable of reading people’s social cues and understanding in the moment. It’s not slow processing, it’s a non-reliable body. What you see is not always what I feel.

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Matt added to the part of the discussion where we discussed other factors that might affect how socially interested we look: “I think another reason for this is that a person can have competing intentions in the same situation and can resolve behavior into one overriding intention. I’m here and I want to be social or I’m here and don’t want to be social. Say you are at a party with your boss and you want to be social but you are afraid of approaching him. These variables are not static.”

Elizabeth made a good point in response: “We tend to love static variables. How you might socialize in this class environment is very different than how you would socialize at a party with friends or even a dinner party your parents are throwing.”

Given our discussions of social competency (the standards of which were created through an NT lens) and the stories Tribe has shared, we can begin to reset expectations and the NT’s understanding of nonspeaking individuals and their perceived sociability. 

After lunch, we came together as a large group and shared out what was discussed in the breakout discussions. While we were talking about the social standards that society has set for autistic people to achieve, the social skill competencies we’ve built into IEPS, I was reminded of a quote Lisa had shared almost a couple of years ago: “I would just say just treat me the way you want to be treated.” In the moment I didn’t think of it, but Matthew also shared something along the same lines: “To my peers, we are both people so just treat me like a person.” We’ve created these lists of skill sets that we emphasize as necessary to demonstrate social competence. There are standards that we push the neurodiverse to reach, but there is also another standard for the neurodiverse AND neurotypical alike: the human standard – to be treated and respected as a human being and to treat and respect others as human beings. Elizabeth added, “What power was vested in us as NT that makes us think we are the litmus of all things socially appropriate?”

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The remainder of the large group meeting was a Q&A panel with Tribe and Matt:

Ian: I was wondering if we broke any stereotypes about non-speakers than you may have believed

Matt: I have spent a lot of time with nonspeaking people so I try not to have stereotypes. One that stands out, that I’m sure you know, is that your bodies aren’t always doing what you want them to do. I think there is a stereotype that you aren’t paying attention. I think what you all show is that even if you are playing Angry Birds or making sounds it doesn’t mean you aren’t paying attention or listening. I think you broke the stereotype in a big way so thank you.

Huan: I want to know if Matt thinks we’re socially competent.

Matt: I have a confession. I have a lab called the social competence lab. I’m still not sure I know what social competence is. You guys tried to define it earlier today and I’ve read almost everything I can on the topic. I think that social competence is about meeting your own goals. I think it depends on what your goals are Huan, it depends on your standards and that’s what matters.

Huan: Absolutely, yes

Ryan: I’m curious to know if and how NTs are taught to interact with autistics

Matt: It doesn’t happen too much. I think the places it happens are very variable. I think the ones you are having is rare. I teach a class at Stony Brook with 200 undergraduates and they read the research. I make sure 1/3 of the class is autistic. Most of the ways people are taught to interact with autistics is through clinical training and speech pathology. I don’t think we have yet achieved a standardized way that that happens. Some fields do better than others. So Ryan, to answer your questions, not enough. This is why we need good science in order to come up with ways to make training more inclusive. 

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The students broke out into their project groups for the remaining time to discuss specific aspects of creating more welcoming and inclusive communities, communities in which nonspeaking autistic individuals can “be accepted as me and treated like you,” as Ryan shared. Look forward to their projects about preventing bullying/harassment, housing options, supporting transition to higher education and providing employment!

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Until next time!

~ Janine Abalos and The Tribe

DEEJ The Movie: Inclusion shouldn’t be a lottery

What a spectacular night at the Atlas Theater in Washington DC for the screening of Deej! Deej is the must-see documentary about DJ Savarese, a nonspeaking autistic and his journey to be included as a college student. The film is powerful and a story that we hope will become common for all of our students. GKTC’s Benjamin McGann participated in a post-screening panel.  Benjamin is a nonspeaking self-advocate and a board member of The Nonspeaking CommUnity Consortium.  Benjamin discussed his thoughts on the film with: Julia Bascom, Executive Director of ASAN; Erica Ginsberg, Executive Director of Docs in Progress; Jenn Lynn, Executive Director of Upcounty Resources; Elizabeth Vosseller, Director of Growing Kids Therapy Center; and Robert Rooy, the director of Deej. Benjamin brought his usual wisdom, insight, and eloquence to the discussion.

The Atlas Theater, Washington DC

Benjamin McGann shares his thoughts about Deej having editorial control in this documentary.

When asked what Ben thought about the film he responded,  LOTS TO ABSORB. I LOVED IT ALL THOUGH.
Ben introduced himself. HI, I’M AUTISTIC. I AM REALLY REALLY HAPPY TO COME TOGETHER TONIGHT.

The panel discussed the film and the fact that Deej was such an intrinsic part of the film and its production.  Ben added,  MY THOUGHTS ARE RACING. THIS IS THE STORY WE NEED TO TELL OTHERS AND SHARE. THANK YOU, ROB, FOR TELLING THIS STORY SO RESPECTFULLY.

“…I CAN THINK AND LEARN AND LOVE AND WORK”

Julia Bascom talked about autism and disability in adulthood and the support needed for adults with disabilities to be successful.  In response to Julia’s points, Ben elaborated, THANK YOU. I USUALLY INTERNALIZE THESE KINDS OF FEELING.  IT IS REFRESHING TO HEAR THIS KIND OF DISCUSSION. I AM AN ADULT, HOWEVER, MANY VIEW ME AS A CHILD BECAUSE I CANNOT SPEAK. BUT I CAN THINK AND LEARN AND LOVE AND WORK.

An audience member asked, “Ben, what gives you hope about the future?”
B: I HAVE HOPE COMING HERE TONIGHT AND SEEING THIS FILM AND HAVING THIS DISCUSSION WITH ALL OF YOU.

 Deej screenings are being held all over the United States and Canada, often with panel discussions following the film. Be sure to check the Deej Facebook page for a screening near you.
~Elizabeth and Benjamin

Letterboards, not just life changing.. life saving

I am so excited to introduce Diane Belnavis and Brent Sullivan as guest bloggers!  We formed an instant friendship when I met Brent, Diane and Dylan at the TASH Conference in Portland Oregon in November 2015. They have one of the most beautiful stories I have ever heard and it keeps getting better and better with time.  I am so grateful to Brent and Diane for their willingness to share their story.  Be sure to meet Brent at the Nonspeaking CommUnity Consortium’s Motormorphosis Conference July 21-23, 2017!

Diane’s story:
In the spring of 1984, six years before my son Dylan was born, Brent joined our family. He is a non-speaker with autism and is now 48 years old.

Dylan (left) and Brent (right)

While in graduate school in Oregon in the early 80’s, I worked as the night manager of a group home for children with disabilities (yes, children. really). Brent moved into the home with four other children in 1982. He was thirteen years old. When I finished my degree a few years later and left my job at the group home, Brent came with me. By that time, we were close friends and I knew that there was no way I could leave him behind.

My son Dylan was born six years later. They grew up as brothers and have always been close, even though there is a 20 year age difference. When Dylan was in elementary school, he wrote an amazing story titled ‘My very own Rain Man’. It is the story of his childhood with Brent. They have created their own holiday family traditions together, and Brent has been there with Dylan through every one of life’s milestones.

Dylan was living in Portland, Oregon when Brent began using the letterboard three years ago. Of course I kept him up to date on the progress Brent was making, but until he saw Brent do it for himself, the reality of Spelling to Communicate didn’t really sink in. He met Elizabeth and the GKTC tribe in 2015 when they presented in Portland at the TASH conference, and months later decided to move back to Pennsylvania to learn letterboard with Brent.

Brent and Dylan – brothers in every meaning of the word.

Dylan became Brent’s official staff person last year and they now work on letterboard a few times a week (in between farm chores and planting sunflowers!). Last fall, Brent spelled to Dylan ‘Stop I am in need of medical attention’. Since then, for the last six months, Brent has been guiding us with spelling… through medical appointments, surgery, ultrasounds, cat scans, blood work and XRays. We have practiced scenarios, watched YouTube videos to prepare, and Brent has instructed us, by letterboard, what to say to the doctor in order to lessen his anxiety and keep his body calm through exams. I go into each test and appointment first, and explain to the doctor or technician the requests Brent has made and the trigger words to avoid.

Dylan was dedicated to learning to use the letterboards with Brent.

He has been unbelievable. He has been completely successful in completing everything asked of him. He has guided Dylan and me through each day as far as how he wishes to change his diet and his daily routine to improve his overall health. He has spelled ‘Do not offer me any sugar’, ‘Take me to the Y for exercise’, and even ‘No, I don’t want ice cream, I want a fruit smoothie for dessert’!

In March, he spelled to Elizabeth ‘Letterboard has saved my life’.

“THE SAD REALITY IS THAT MANY HAVE GIVEN UP ON ADULTS. OUR LIVES MATTER.”

Brent’s story:
MY DESIRE IS TO ADVOCATE FOR COMMUNICATION SUPPORTS AND HOUSING FOR ADULT AUTISTICS. LIFE IS WORTH LIVING NOW THAT I HAVE COMMUNICATION. ELIZABETH, COMMUNICATION JUST SAVED MY LIFE. I FEEL GRATEFUL BECAUSE I TOLD MY DOCTORS WHAT WAS HAPPENING. I AM WORRIED BUT BELIEVE IN THE DOCTORS AND MEDICAL INTERVENTION.

ELIZABETH, I AM THE MOST LUCKY MAN EVER. BUT THE ONES IN SILENCE ARE NOT SO LUCKY. THEY MIGHT NOT EVER BE ABLE TO TELL SOMEONE THEY ARE SICK. THEY MAY NEVER SAY I LOVE YOU. THEY NEED TO LEARN HOW TO SPELL ON THE STENCIL BOARDS AND LETTERBOARD TOO. TEACH THEM LIKE YOU TAUGHT ME.

ELIZABETH, I WAS THINKING ABOUT MY LIFE. I NEED TO MAKE SOMETHING OF MY TIME ON EARTH. THE WORST THING IS TO BE A VISITOR TO LIFE INSTEAD OF A PARTICIPANT. I WANT TO ADVOCATE FOR OTHER INDIVIDUALS WHO ARE TRAPPED IN THEIR OWN BODIES. THEY MUST FEEL THE SAME LONELINESS I DID. TIME TO JOIN THE CONVERSATION INSTEAD OF BEING THE CONVERSATION.

THE SAD REALITY IS THAT MANY HAVE GIVEN UP ON ADULTS. OUR LIVES MATTER. ELIZABETH, THIS IS MY MISSION NOW. THE ADULTS HAVE GONE SILENT TOO LONG. MY QUALITY OF LIFE HAS CHANGED DRAMATICALLY SINCE I STARTED SPELLING WITH DIANE AND ELIZABETH AND DYLAN.

ELIZABETH, NOT WITHOUT SPELLING WOULD I HAVE BEEN ABLE TO GET THE MEDICAL HELP I NEEDED. JUST HOW MANY HAVE DIED OR SUFFERED JUST BECAUSE THEIR OWN BROKEN BODIES CONDEMN THEM TO SILENCE?

ELIZABETH, THERE IS MUCH WE NEED TO DO. LET’S REACH OUT TO SILENT ADULTS AND TEACH THEM TO SPELL ON THE LETTERBOARDS. TEACH PARENTS, CAREGIVERS AND THOSE WHO WORK WITH MENTAL EDUCATION THAT ONE IS NEVER TOO OLD TO LEARN.

 

Elizabeth and Brent hamming it up!

Thank you to Brent and Diane for sharing their beautiful story, dreams and hopes with us. I am truly grateful to have you all in my life!  ~Elizabeth

Silencing the Silent

Huan

Huan Vuong started advocating for communication and education rights for himself and other nonspeaking individuals as soon as he got on the letterboards. This was his second year presenting at the TASH conference. Due to Huan’s strong advocacy, his school system has recently responded to his requests to meet his communication needs and will provide him with a trained partner so that he can meaningfully participate in general education classes! He will also begin taking classes at a local community college! Huan is the embodiment of determination and self advocacy.  Enjoy his TASH Talk. ~Elizabeth & Huan 

Hello everyone. My name is Huan Vuong and I am happy to talk to you today. Perhaps you notice that I spell instead of speak.

This is the best way for me to communicate. My speech is limited and unreliable. But I can communicate very reliably when I type and spell. Learning to communicate this way changed my life. I finally had a way to express my thoughts. You would think that this new expression would open new educational doors for me. I did too.

The problem is that I have to have a communication partner who knows how to coach my body when I get stuck or too stimmy. I am still autistic even though I can communicate. This means I have motor and sensory issues. My school has been resistant to the idea of my need for support. This has been incredibly frustrating to me.

For the past three years, I have been fighting for my right to be included in general education classes. Completing high school with a real degree seems to be an impossible task. You might think that would be easy, but you would be wrong. This should be a no brainer.  I am a smart guy, I can learn, I want to learn but I need a trained communication partner.

This is why I am here today. TASH is devoted to supporting people with disabilities. Communication is no longer my disability. Motor and sensory will continue to challenge me. But right now the disability I face is access. This is not acceptable to me. I request your help to open access to education, to opportunity and to real inclusion into the neurotypical world by supporting communication rights for all nonspeakers.

Thank you for listening. Now I need to ask you for a favor, I need your voice. I need you to speak up and advocate for me and my friends. Don’t worry we will tell you what to say. Say that we are smart. Say that we want to learn. Say that education is for all. Say that communication is a human right. Thank you. —

The Value of Communication

Last week we promised more presentations by our students at the 2016 TASH Conference in St. Louis.  Ian Nordling is our next self advocate presenting his thoughts on the importance of communication in his TASH Talk.  Ian has been spelling on the letterboards and keyboards for over 2 years and is now beginning to type independently. He is a tenacious advocate for access to communication.  We are sure Ian’s message will resonate you just as they with the audience at TASH. ~Elizabeth

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Ian (center) poses with his cousin Kelsey Aughey (left), one of the fantastic ACTS Professionals in the GKTC Professional Network serving kids at the Hirsch Academy in Atlanta.  Ian and Elizabeth Vosseller (right) have worked together since 2001.

Thank you for being here today. I am Ian Nordling. I am here today to talk about the beauty of communication. I am uniquely qualified to talk about this because I did not have a way to talk until three years ago.

This might sound impossible but it is true. I could not communicate more than a few words. Then I learned to control my arm so I could spell my thoughts on a letterboard. These words took the world for me. I could finally express myself after all of these years. You cannot imagine a greater triumph! The world opened up for me through those words.

I have been pleased to gain entry to the world through the words that had been stuck in my head but are now free. Unless you have been without communication you have no idea how important it is. I really can’t tell you every way that it has changed my life but I can say that it has changed everything.

I now live in Virginia because I was able to tell my parents I wanted to move there so I could be close to GKTC and others like me who spell. I now have phenomenal friends like me who talk with letters. I am finally learning and my intellectual curiosity is satisfied at last. I am incredibly happy today because I can communicate.

*TASH Talks are limited to 8 minutes, so Ian wrote the beginning of his speech (above) prior to the conference and completed the part below live.  

Thank you for being here today. I want to echo Elizabeth, don’t judge me based on my motor. You can clap more for that. I am hungry to learn. I hunger for friends. This hunger can only be satisfied through communication, understanding and acceptance. Time to change beliefs.

Stop making assumptions of Ignorance – TASH 2016

This year, four of Growing Kids’ nonspeaking or unreliably speaking clients presented at the TASH 2016 conference in St. Louis! Each of our students gave a TASH Talk (in the style of a TED Talk) and participated together for a panel discussion on inclusion. We will be sharing their presentations with you over the next few weeks. First up is Tom Pruyn! Only 8 minutes are allotted for the TASH Talks, so Tom typed the first part of his speech (below in regular font) before the conference and then Tom typed the conclusion (presented in bold) live.  Enjoy! ~Elizabeth

I am so delighted to be here today. I am 18 and I love music, cute girls, technology and having friends. I am also autistic and have poor motor control. I am able to talk more than most of my autistic friends but this is not my best asset. My real thoughts are best expressed when I type. Really most of what comes out of my mouth is nonsense.

I talk almost nonstop silliness. Songs, lines from cartoons, credits from movies, and the same things over and over. This is not what I want to say but is what I am good at saying because I have said it over and over. This is incredibly frustrating for me because I know that I sound ridiculous. I don’t want to be judged by the words spewing from my mouth but instead I want to be valued for my true capabilities and the words that I can write.

This might disturb some of you who thought that speech is the ultimate goal. For me, speech has been my downfall. My teachers and many others have assumed that my speech reflects my purposeful thinking. The truth is that my speech reflects the random trash going through my brain. What I spell is what I think. However, I have not been allowed to communicate this way in school so no one was able to ever see my real capabilities. This is why I am talking to you today so you can spread my desire to rethink what you believe about autistics.

*Note: This portion below was typed live at the TASH presentation. We had technical issues with the blue tooth keyboard at the conference.  You can see the typing on the screen in the video.  We have corrected the stuck or repeated letters here for readability.

This is my request to you. Stop thinking that speech is a reflection of intelligence. The ability to learn does not depend on speech. The ability to learn depends on being given a chance to learn. Don’t limit those chances to those who speak reliably. Please give me and my friends a chance to learn. Thank you for listening.