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

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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.

Advocacy in Action – Explaining NonSpeaking Autism to the Police

We are continually impressed with the fantastic accomplishments of our kids who learn and communicate by spelling on the letter boards!  A few weeks ago Meghann Parkinson, one of our fabulous GKTC Letterboard Providers, was working with Gordy Baylinson, discussing the Autism Safety Fair for Montgomery County, Maryland, to be held Friday, May 20, 2016. Meghann asked Gordy if he would like to write a letter to the police officer in charge of this event. Gordy jumped on this opportunity and typed this letter below over two sessions with Meghann. Not only is this a phenomenal letter, it is also informative and offers insightful guidance for those who are not familiar with nonspeaking autistics.

Dear Officer Reyes,

My name is Gordy, and I am a teenager with nonspeaking autism. I prefer this term rather than low functioning, because if I am typing you this letter, which I am, I am clearly functioning. I felt very strongly about writing you today, to give a little extra insight on
the disconnected links that were supposed to make my brain and body work together in harmony. But, they don’t and that’s okay. You see, life for me and others like me is a daily game, except not fun, of tug-of-war. My brain, which is much like yours, knows what it wants and how to make that clear. My body, which is much like a drunken, almost six foot toddler, resists.

This letter is not a cry for pity, pity is not what I’m looking for. I love myself just the way I am, drunken toddler body and all. This letter is, however, a cry for attention, recognition and acceptance. With your attention, I can help you recognize the signs of nonspeaking autism. If you can recognize the signs, then you will be able to recognize our differences which then leads to the understanding of those differences, which brings us to the wonders of acceptance. With these simple ingredients, together we can create a safe, welcoming and happy environment for both autistics and neurotypicals alike.

The physical signs to look for are flapping hands or some other socially unacceptable movement, words, noises or behavior in general. That’s uncontrollable. With a mind and feelings much like everyone else’s, do you truly believe we like acting that way? I don’t, that’s for sure.

If one becomes aggressive, with biting or hitting for example, obviously protect yourself but there is no reason to use aggression in return. Remember, this aggression, is an uncontrollable reaction, most likely triggered by fear. Nothing means more to people like us, than respect. I can tell you with almost one hundred percent certainty the situation will go down a lot easier with this knowledge.

I have nothing but respect for you all and everything you do. If it weren’t for you, I would never have had this opportunity to advocate for myself and other autistics. I look forward to meeting you.
Sincerely,
Gordy

Gordy’s note has since been written up in the Washington Post and shared widely on the web!  Officer Reyes was so moved she sent this response back to Gordy and his family. Here is (an abridged version) of her response.

Evan/Dara/Gordy,
Thanks for reaching out to me. I loved reading the letter!! I would love to meet all of you. I would love to have the letter read and Gordy be present for my recruits instruction.

In the past year we incorporated our MCPD Autism Ambassador Jake to speak directly to the recruits about his experience with law enforcement as well as his behavior and how it’s important for law enforcement to be aware and understanding. I think the recruits would benefit from Gordy’s letter and Gordy as as well. I instruct the recruits and current officers alike that Autism is a spectrum.

love the non-speaking vs. low functioning. I will remember that from here on out, it’s more than just semantics. I always share with the officers I teach to “never underestimate” a person with Autism. I also teach them to not associate non-verbal with a lack of intelligence. I continuously stress those two thoughts to my officers. Gordy will help to reinforce this idea yet again. I am the fortunate one, in that I am the one that has the opportunity to see first hand to never underestimate persons with Autism/IDD. This is yet another example.

It’s my job to showcase those individuals with the hopes of sending the message home to the officers that will have the interactions in the community. I would love for Gordy to join Jake in our recruit instruction. I do stress that Jake speaks for those that can not speak. However, like I mentioned, I really stress that those that can not speak, also have so much to offer and should also not be underestimated.

I would love for you to attend Autism Night Out and have you and Gordy meet Jake and vice versa. Plus, I would love to meet Gordy in person and have our officers meet Gordy as well. Thank you for sharing this with me. I would be so proud for you and your family to see the faces of our recruits when they receive the Autism/IDD instruction.

Reach out to me anytime. I would love to see more from Gordy!
Thanks for making my night.
Officer Laurie Reyes
Special Operations Division

This is autism advocacy at it’s best – education and advocacy by the experts – autistic individuals!
~Elizabeth, Meghann and Gordy