Chess Friends Forever

Hi everyone!  My name is Karen Dorula and I’m an occupational therapist at GKTC.  Elizabeth has challenged us all to jump onto the blog.  I’m very excited to be able to share all of the wonderful chess that has been happening here!

I started teaching chess in January 2016 after one of my letterboard clients, William, asked me to teach him “something hard.”  I thought of many different challenging topics, such as the periodic table of elements or the physics of outer space, but when I thought of chess, a quote from one of my favorite movies popped into my head: “Knight to e4.”  (Yes, it’s a Harry Potter quote!)

Harry Potter Ron

I went online and immediately started learning everything there was to know about something called “Algebraic Chess Notation” (ACN).  ACN is a system of letters and numbers that correspond to moves on a chessboard.  Most players use ACN to record their moves in a game so they can review it later.  I thought it would be a perfect way for William to communicate the move he wanted to make and since I’m an occupational therapist, I saw this as a great opportunity for him to practice his motor skills as well.  

ACN Board

There was one slight problem.  I didn’t really know how to play chess.  I had a basic understanding of how the pieces move, but that was it.  I reviewed the fundamentals of chess by myself, and then started teaching it to William.  We practiced simply moving the pieces to a targeted location.  He would spell out the ACN on a letterboard and then I provided him with the least amount of assistance to move the piece.  I continued to teach him more advanced concepts by staying only one step ahead at any given moment.  This became a problem as I realized just how quickly he was learning.  Something that would take me an hour to learn took him only a few minutes.  For example, when capturing, you spell out the symbol for the piece you want to move, the file it’s currently on, an x to indicate the capture, and the square you want it to move to.  So, if you want to capture a piece using your rook, it might look something like, Raxg5.  This took me a longer to learn than I care to admit, but after a few minutes of practice, William spelled, “MAKES SENSE TO ME.”  

William loved learning chess so I dove in head first.  I spent hours a day playing chess on my phone and watching videos online that I later turned into lessons.  After a few weeks, he sat down to play a game with his dad.  His parents noted how regulated he was during the game.  His body was able to stay extremely calm because his brain was so engaged.  As I teach more people to play, regulation is a common result of chess.

William Chess
William’s first time playing against his dad.
(From left to right: William, George, Karen)

I have now taught dozens of students how to play.  At first, I didn’t realize just how perfect chess can be for people who spell to communicate (thank you to Elizabeth for seeing the potential!).  Chess is a hobby that can be played throughout a lifetime and you can always learn something new.  Since there are small “mini games” you can play, you can practice even if you only have 10 minutes.  It’s a fun way to get on the letterboards with family members and practice skills.

Huan and Ian Chess PNG.png
Huan and Ian playing a Knight Game, with Huan’s brother and Ian’s dad holding the letterboards.
(From left to right: Thuy, Huan, Ian, Eric)

Chess is also the best equalizer.  It doesn’t matter your age, gender, race, language, socioeconomic status, or diagnosis.  During a discussion about chess as an equalizer, Dustin wrote: “THAT WAS WHY I WANTED TO LEARN HOW TO PLAY WITH THE LETTERBOARD.  PLAYING WITH THE LETTERBOARD IS A WAY TO PLAY WITH YOUR MIND INSTEAD OF YOUR BODY.”

Dustin chess PNG.jpgDustin playing against a friend.

Chess provides the perfect opportunity to meet new friends.  Here’s a conversation from a chess sessions with Ethan and Dominic:

E: HI, MY NAME IS ETHAN.  KAREN HAS TOLD ME SO MUCH ABOUT YOU.  MAY GO PROFESSIONAL WITH CHESS.  KIDDING.

D: THAT WAS FUNNY.  MY NAME IS DOMINIC.  I JUST STARTED PLAYING THIS WEEK.  I AM REALLY EXCITED TO PLAY.

E: THANK YOU.  MAKES ME HAPPY TO MAKE A NEW FRIEND.

One for All PNG.png
William, Ethan, and Dominic play against each other in pairs or have “Chess Club,” which they have named One For All, so they can learn and practice drills together.  
(From left to right: Rabun, William, Ethan, Karen, Dominic)

 

I’m grateful to William for challenging me to learn something hard.  Chess didn’t turn out to be very hard for him, but it has become a hobby that he loves.  Chess combines motor, communication, and friendship, which is an OTs dream.  My absolute favorite part of chess is the CFF – Chess Friends Forever – that have been formed! These friendships are what push me to stay up to speed with my students and continue to improve with every session.

I will become more active on the blogs to share information and other activities that we’ve been doing at GKTC.  Until next time!

~Karen

 

 

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We have a dream… celebrating MLK weekend in Atlanta

In celebration of Martin Luther King Day, we are reposting this blog from MLK weekend in Atlanta 2 years ago!  Wow!  It is amazing to see how far along these fantastic spellers and self advocates have come since then! The fight for communication rights is stronger than ever! ~Elizabeth

I returned from my second workshop in Atlanta on Martin Luther King Day, January 19, 2015. What a great workshop – 9 funny, smart, hard-working and thoughtful kids, great parents eager to use…

Source: We have a dream… celebrating MLK weekend in Atlanta

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. —

Inclusion ~ Evan, Shine Your Light!

I wanted to finish off 2016 with one of our favorite moments of the year. Prepare for some guaranteed happiness as you witness what happened when one of our clients was given the opportunity to conduct his school choir. Evan is one feisty, adorable guy who never fails to make me laugh during our sessions together. His communication through spelling is strong – but Evan has a way of getting his point across with or without the letterboards! Evan’s video of his conducting debut went viral but when his mother told me the entire story,  I knew you all needed to hear it too!  Evan’s mom, Elizabeth Zielinski, agreed to share Evan’s story with us as today’s guest blogger.  Enjoy and kick off the New Year by sharing this story of joy!!  ~Elizabeth, Elizabeth & Evan 

My son, Evan, is 11 years old, autistic, and unreliably verbal. He is in fifth grade in public school, placed in a self-contained classroom, with various opportunities throughout the day where he is included with his neurotypical peers in the general education setting.

Some of Evan’s behaviors prevent him from being fully mainstreamed into general education classes for safety reasons. But with our insistence and with our school’s cooperation, he is included in many experiential learning opportunities and also in extracurricular events. One of those events was the recent fifth grade winter chorus.

His dad and I were told he would be included last Fall, and we hesitated to give permission because we didn’t know how well he would do with the sensory stimulation. But we had a lot of faith in our school’s remarkable music teacher, Mr. Charlie Ring, and trusted that he would ensure Evan’s experience was a good one.

Leading up to the event Evan grew excited and told us that he was going to be a guest conductor of one song. He showed us his plan for approaching the front and leading the chorus.  We were naturally entertained and thrilled to expect this.

When the afternoon school assembly performance arrived, I waited expectantly to see Evan’s debut as conductor. To my disappointment, it didn’t happen. I approached Mr. Ring to ask why, only to learn that it was never part of the program, but a way that Mr. Ring was helping Evan to participate in rehearsals. Evan didn’t seem to realize that it wasn’t going to happen for the actual performance, or if he did, his unreliable speech meant we didn’t know what he expected or hoped to have happen.

And that’s when the magic started. After I asked my question of Mr. Ring and we realized the misunderstanding, Mr. Ring only asked if I thought Evan would be able to do it without a formal rehearsal. I said I thought he would. Right then and there, Mr. Ring starting planning the changes to include Evan as guest conductor in the evening performance for the community.

Prior to the second and last performance, Mr. Ring explained to the rest of the fifth graders what the change to the evening program would include:

Missing from that video was the round of applause Evan got from his classmates before the announcement that he would be conducting, proving that acceptance comes naturally to kids when given the opportunity.

Evan waited patiently backstage, but you can see the anticipation on his face.

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And then, show time. It was the second performance of the day, he had been wearing his uncomfortable show clothes for hours, and he had to stand on risers and pay attention; even though singing along was not an option for him. Anyone who knows him would tell you, all of that alone was a lot to ask. But toward the end of the show, this happened:

No one had seen him do this before, but he showed us that it was worth the wait. As of this writing, the video has been viewed over 50,000 times on Facebook and another 1,300 times on YouTube; and has been shared hundreds of times worldwide. Based on the comments I’ve received; it has touched a lot of people.

What I love about this is not just that my son had a moment of joy and celebration. It’s also that everyone else shared in that with him. It wasn’t just the joy on his face in the video that touches me, it was the appreciation of his fellow fifth graders and the audience when they watched him have his starring moment. There are some chuckles, but not at Evan’s expense.  They are just seeing him have an entertaining experience.

The most important thing we have learned about inclusion through this experience is that it doesn’t mean building events around Evan’s needs, oversimplifying his experience, or putting him into a fully neurotypical environment and seeing how long he can last before extracting him. What it does mean is being open to and creative about those moments that allow him to learn and grow like any student wants to do. That requires seeing him with the best of expectations about what he can do, and trusting that no matter what happens, everyone will grow from it.

Finally, the awesome Mr. Ring sent Evan a celebratory gift after the fact: he now owns the conductor’s baton he used that evening as a reminder of his starring moment.

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Creating Social and Communication Opportunities

We are often inspired by the creative strategies our families find to make education and communication on the letter boards interesting and meaningful. During a Skype consult, Jasmin explained how she created social and communication opportunities between her son, who spells to communicate, and her nephew. Jasmin graciously agreed to share her fantastic strategies as today’s guest blogger!

Guest blogger bio: Jasmin Dutton is one of our GKTC moms from Quebec, Canada. She has been an avid homeschooler to both her sons for the past 7 years. After months of attempting to teach her son to point on her own, Jasmin and Wyatt took off on the boards after observing a GKTC workshop in March 2016. Jasmin enjoys gardening, and the outdoors in all seasons. She likes to emphasize a love of nature, curiosity and social contribution in her teachings.

Beyond the Boards

What has always attracted me most to Growing Kids Therapy Center is the emphasis Elizabeth and her team places on community building and collaboration amongst their students. This is something I’ve always wanted for my son but due to so many challenges, have struggled to create.

This past summer I have been determined to make it happen. So I took everything I have learned from coaching my son on the boards and put it into helping him connect socially.

Tolerance – for socializing: not outside the house, zero with strangers, tricky with same aged peers, and requiring structure and support. So it would have to be at home, someone older and familiar and well planned. There was also no way Wyatt would tolerate being left alone with anyone. This was not going to be respite. I would have to be present and directing the engagement.  Luckily, my 17 year old nephew lives nearby so I got in touch with him and made arrangements for him to come by for an hour a week to “hang out” with Wyatt and me.

Skill Goal – the challenge here was socializing so it would be over the top to work simultaneously on learning new physical skills. We’ve stuck to familiar activities that Wyatt excels at, such as cooking and swimming and have participated in them as a team, with me coaching both guys in the activity and creating opportunity for them to work together.  I was able to model for my nephew how to interact with Wyatt

Cognitive Goal – having always homeschooled my son, conversation can get pretty stale around here. I wanted my nephew to bring in conversation that would expose Wyatt to what teens are up to; the music, hobbies, and interests. Conversations were started around where my nephew was going to college in the fall, what his course load looked like and what he had to accomplish to be accepted into his program.

Response Level – well, response level wasn’t something I had thought too much of in the beginning, hoping really, that Wyatt would just stick around, but it was something that developed organically over time.  During one occasion, I came up with an activity Wyatt and his cousin could do together.  I would ask his cousin questions regarding his interests, he would then write his answer in invisible ink and Wyatt would use a developer pen to reveal the answer (we have linked two cool options if you want to try this at home!). Wyatt was pretty enthusiastic about the activity and I asked if he wanted me to ask him questions as well, and he agreed. So I quickly ran to get his board and took turns asking the guys each a personal interest question, trying my darndest not to cry at what I was witnessing.

This has been such a huge success for Wyatt that I have recently hired another teen (still familiar but less so) to come by during the week, and am using the same goals with her as I do with my nephew. I still need to remain present and help guide the interactions but my son now has the opportunity to collaborate. This fall, I will definitely be planning out more ways to use the boards during their times together. The experience has given me a burst of confidence and motivation to look closely at the opportunities I want for my son, envision what that could look like for him and make it happen.

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Jasmin, thank you for sharing your fantastic ideas for developing new relationships for your son! For many of our kids, building in opportunities for peer communication requires creativity, I know so many families will benefit from these great strategies!

~Elizabeth and Jasmin

The ABC’s of Inclusion

Last month we were delighted to participate in the Institute of Communication and Inclusion held in Columbia, Maryland. We presented to a great audience of people who are dedicated to serving nonspeaking and minimally speaking individuals. We got to collaborate with so many progressive thinkers and meet some of our inclusion super heroes, Cheryl Jorgeson and Paula Kluth! Our own Meghann Parkinson and skilled Atlanta practitioner, Kelsey Aughey joined me as we held daily skill building workshops for 20 plus spellers and their communication partners to help practice new skills. Since the focus of the conference was on inclusion, we decided to put our groups of subject matter experts to work!

Practicing independent typing with Philip!

Practicing independent typing with Philip!

One of our groups focused on typing skills. This group was challenged to come up with the ABC’s of inclusion!  Each student, Philip, Mike, Camille and Matthew took turns writing a sentence for each letter with the keyboard held for them.  After typing their sentence, each practiced typing one or more of the words independently. All made fantastic progress!  Our friend, Philip Reyes, reported that this was one of his favorite parts of the conference and wrote about his experience in his blog, Faith, Hope, Love and Autism.  

Actual inclusion opens doors.
Be patient with us.
Caring people make it successful.
Don’t give up.
Excellent expectations.
Friends, need I say more?
Give us lots of patient encouragement.
Hear us when we spell.
In day, talking to friends opens my world.
Just like typically functioning,need support.
Keep believing in us.
Learn challenging subjects.
Must be proud.
No baby talk.
Open hearts please us.
Praise our achievements as they are yours as well.
Question your assumptions.
Remember we are just like you.
Spelling is our way out.
Treat us with respect.
Understand totally intelligent and eager to learn.
Voices must be heard.
Wait for us to finish our thoughts.
Xylophone can’t make open words and it still is in the orchestra.
You are needed for our success.

Zero tolerance for non believers.

One of our other groups was tasked with giving advising educators on inclusive practice. Not only did the come up with some great tips, they also collaborated on an acrostic poem!

Huan: INCLUSION IS LIKE ACCESSING ALL FACILITIES AVAILABLE TO EVERYONE. THERE IS A NEED FOR SPACE WHERE EVERYONE FEELS PROTECTED. CAN I SHARE MY SPACE WITH EVERYONE? YES. LEARNING TO SHARE MEANS KEEPING TALKERS ENGAGED IN MY TYPING.

Nadia: BE ALL CARING, DO NOT YELL

Harry:  BE OPEN TO RECREATE INDIVIDUAL EXPERIENCES…SOME NEED CERTAIN ACCOMMODATION.

I think everyone should be included.
No one should miss each opportunity.
Children all deserve a good start.
Learn to share with all others.
Understand strengths.
See the intelligence underneath.
Instead of treating me like not smart, treat me like smart.
Obstacles may come, they make us stronger.

No child left behind!

Finally, we finished our third day of skill practice by creating a Pokemon Go inspired game to take our skills out in the community in our own game of Communication Go! The object was to “capture” (by snapping a picture) an introduction, a conversation, sensory aids, a story ~ any form of communication or comfort! The more you communicate, the more “experience points” you gain!  We all had a blast meeting folks all over the conference center and loved sharing our finds!
Lucas and his mom capture a sensory soft t-shirt AND an introduction! Bonus Points!

Lucas and his mom capture a sensory soft t-shirt AND an introduction! Bonus Points!

Once again, we find our students are our very best educators! So inspired by their messages of inclusion and we can’t wait to put them into practice. Feel free to share their great tips for inclusion – just in time for back to school!
~Elizabeth, Meghann, Kelsey and our friends at the ICI

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