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

Unintentional Harm: Understanding the Out of Control Body

Recently, one of our parents asked what to do when her son become grabby and pinchy at home or school.  She recognizes that her son has motor control issues and knows that he is not trying to intentionally hurt her but is having trouble reconciling the difference between his intentions and actions. All of our clients have motor control difficulties, formally known as apraxia, but informally described as a “body-brain disconnect.” We have also written about it here and here. Since we believe the real experts we decided to pass this mom’s question along to “The Tribe”, our group of nonspeaking young adults who communicate through spelling.

Here’s some of the Tribe – Ben, Huan, Emma, Lisa, Ryan and Paul.

Huan: Explain that when something like that happens he does not wish to hurt anyone. He is most likely over stimulated and had no other outlet in that moment. It’s a really terrible feeling to experience and that’s the only way I can explain it. Just trust that he really doesn’t want to hurt anyone.

Emma: I definitely feel your pain. I am one of those who can’t control their body. I know it is not ok for me to shriek but I can’t stop myself even when it is affecting my friends. Try to be patient and know it is not his intention to hurt you.

Ben: It’s hard when teachers don’t understand you and some kids unknowingly provoke you and your body is vibrating and feels as if you might explode and you actually do and someone gets hurt. Your heart breaks, but now you’re in trouble and you can’t remember how you lost the control you worked so hard to maintain. If teachers can’t understand this impulse, how are we supposed to stop? How are we to progress? It’s like, not hard.

And some more of our Tribe – Tom, Ian and Ryan

Ian: Tell the teachers there are things going on in the environment that neurotypicals will never pick up on, and when they try to control your son they are getting in the way of his self-regulation process and he strikes.

Paul: Tell them he doesn’t want to do it. It’s his brain body disconnect. And he is intensely dysregulated.

Davis: One of the hardest things to explain is doing something horrible to someone you love. It is the last thing that you want to do and it makes you sick to accept that you did this. I wish I could give you a better answer. It is anxiety and constant dysregulation not your sweet child’s intentions at fault.
Another of our clients, Jordyn, has more to share on how he struggles when his unintentional actions hurt others. Thanks to the Tribe for your insight on this complicated and emotional issue.
~Elizabeth and The Tribe

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

Diagnosis Disruption: Debunking the Myths of Non-verbal Autism

Autistic individuals are the true autism experts. Matthew Lager’s TASH Talk debunking the myths of non-verbal autism is a must read for anyone who has an autistic child or works with autistic individuals. Matthew uses a letterboard and keyboard to spell to communicate. He prepared this presentation for the 2016 TASH conference with his mother over a several weeks. Due to the 10 minute time limit of the TASH Talk, Matthew’s speech was read aloud for the presentation with spelling closing remarks live. Matthew’s goal is to challenge people to rethink autism and understand the capabilities of people who have been labeled as “low functioning”.  ~Elizabeth & Matthew  

Matthew

Thanks for letting me speak today. Thanks to TASH for including me and for your commitment to advocating for an easily dismissed segment of society.

I am going to share my experience of being erroneously mislabeled as low functioning and of low intelligence. My story is representative of thousands of others labeled as low functioning. My life changed in ways most can not comprehend the summer of 2014 when my parents took me to Herndon, Virginia to see Elizabeth Vosseller. My hero, Elizabeth, introduced me to the letterboards. Through a letterboard and now keyboard I am able to communicate my true thoughts by spelling them one finger at a time.  I wrote this presentation on a key board tapping the letters one at a time.

The topic of my talk is:  Diagnosis Disruption: Debunking the myths of non-verbal autism.

Many people view me as being stupid, emotionless and without the ability to understand other people’s feelings. It is not a surprise because scientists describe autistics so inaccurately. I am here to tell you we are much more complex than you believe and also more ordinary than you realize. We are confusing and difficult to understand because our exterior doesn’t match our fully intact brain.  We have sensory problems that make us look out of control. Some of us have voices that don’t say what we mean. Others have motor planning impulse control issues that make us do things we didn’t mean to do.  In spite of the tremendous challenges we are all just like you with complex thoughts and feelings.

Scientists typically look at three key areas when determining whether someone fits the criteria for further screening for autism spectrum disorder.  The three areas are impaired social interaction, impaired communication and restricted or repetitive behavior.  They often assume that functional problems of speech, social interaction and unusual behavior are indicative of low intelligence and poor cognitive function. They create checklists to define the behavior we do that is not typical without understanding that many of these behaviors are in fact motor based rather than a cognitive deficit.

At my previous school, I was not allowed to spell to communicate and therefore was unable to change their incorrect assumptions of me.  They were unable to see beyond my atypical behavior. As a result, I was taught at the first grade level last year.  My new school was open to seeing me differently and allowing me to use the letterboard all day.  I am now taught at grade level which is eight grades higher than instruction at my previous schools. I wish they could see me today and perhaps treat others with so called low functioning autism differently.  This school move only occurred when a group of experts in the school system were willing to suspend their preconceived ideas about autism. I hope you are willing to do this also by hearing what my friends who are here and I have to say.

I am going to ask you to look at a few more examples from my perspective.

While on the surface these scientific descriptions seem accurate, I am going to describe how what you see in many autistics is not the full or true picture.

1)  Wild erratic movements without purpose: When I look most dysregulated I am reacting to overstimulation and sensory overflow. It is impossible for anyone to evaluate my internal state when just looking at my out of control body. For example I become very dysregulated, cover my ears and make an odd sounding noise when people sing happy birthday.  The out of tune singing, especially my mom’s voice (just kidding mom), makes me feel anxious and covering my ears and making noise muffles the sound. When people see my reaction they assume I don’t want to be part of the celebration and stop including me when in fact I love birthdays and just need a coping mechanism to participate.  When I appear totally out of control, I am internally trying to focus and calm myself during an overly sensory stimulated situation.

2) Inability to initiate or sustain a conversation: Experts claim low functioning autistics are unable to hold a conversation. It is true that I am unable to do it verbally. However I can have full and meaningful conversations with my friends and others if I am able to type my part of the discussion.  I have three friends in the room today who communicate the same way I do.  I wish scientists or disbelievers would watch our interactions and see firsthand the complexity of our discussions, the way we support each other and how emotionally connected we are to each other and the world.  One of my friends dreams of being a writer. Another really wants a girlfriend.  All are interested in a full life with the same opportunities for education, living arrangements, jobs and community that any other person wants.

3) Odd, repetitive behavior: My behavior that experts describe as repetitive and without purpose is actually very useful in calming a highly stressful situation. For example, I often ask repetitive questions when I am nervous about a transition or don’t know how to get the words I want to say out of my mouth.  I understand why experts think these behaviors are odd but understanding the reason we do them is crucial to understanding us.  A good example of this is my obsession with the Wiggles. I talk about them all the time but can’t stand them. As annoying as it is to be 15 and talking about a preschool music group, reciting their lyrics does calm me down when I am stressed.

4) Poorly developed imaginary play: I have been told those with autism have no imaginary play skills. If only someone could get inside my brain you would see how I am always creating stories to pass the time when I am being ignored. I create stories about people traveling around the world and meeting famous historical figures. One of my favorites is of my friends going to meet Abraham Lincoln and talking to him about emancipation of those in society who are disenfranchised. So, I will continue to fail the tests researchers use, like putting plastic figures in front of me and asking me to pretend some contrived story.  However, when I see the figures I’ll pretend in my mind the figures are Lincoln’s soldiers who may have lost this one battle but can still win the war.

5) No or limited interest in social interaction: I understand why someone thinks I’m a loner and prefer isolation. However this could not be further from the truth. In social situations I sometimes leave the room when others are trying to interact with me because i am so excited and my body experiences a rush of such intense happiness that I launch like a rocket out of the room.  When I come back unfortunately the social interaction is lost and even worse than losing that one opportunity I likely pushed the person away for good.  This is one of many examples of how my outward behavior doesn’t match my strong insatiable need to be with others and how researchers don’t understand me. I want friends more than anything. I am lucky that now for the first time I have a group of people who I feel close to and who I feel understand this.

Every time someone with autism is allowed to share what goes on in his mind it gives experts more information and insight into the complicated inner workings of those of us who are so misunderstood. Hearing from Autistic individuals is integral to scientists understanding us and our critical and empathetic thoughts. By doing so, they can study the huge gap between the vast amount of intelligent, intricate, and inventive thoughts that we have in our minds and our difficulty sharing them in a typical way.

In closing so called experts need to start by assuming that their patients with autism are truly thoughtful and intelligent. Entering the patient/clinician relationship with this shift in thinking is the most important first step. Allowing us alternative forms of communication combined with researchers commitment, dedication and hard work we can actually make changes to research protocols that will make a difference in my life and others like me.

So, death to the idea of the empty headed autistic. I hope that people will see me and my friends beyond our exterior and see us for the people we really are.

**Note: we had blue tooth connection issues with the keyboard during the presentation resulting in repeated letters.  We edited the additional letters below for readability. 

I am happy to be here and have a chance to tell our story. Please spread the word and let others know.

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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Santa doesn’t need speech to understand

This holiday, our families from New Zealand decided to have holiday lesson swap. Each of the ten families contributed one holiday themed lesson and walked away with TEN LESSONS! Since I am no fool, I jumped right on this swap. All of the lessons have been fantastic but I have particularly enjoyed the lesson about Tinsel and the Christmas Spider, written by Kiwi mum, Jo Lussey.  In the spirit of the holidays, Jo has offered to share her lesson with all of you! I particularly enjoyed lesson because I had never heard this story before.  At the end of this lesson, I challenged my students to create a brand new Christmas story. My kids have come up with all kinds of fantastic stories but this one by friend Alex stole my heart!  ~Merry Christmas! Elizabeth & The GKTC Team

Alex decided to ride my style - tucking his pencil behind his ear!

Alex decided to ride my style – tucking his pencil behind his ear!

So many Christmases ago, there was a boy who did not have real communication. Realizing that he could not talk the way he wanted to, he could not ask Santa for communication. The boy was absolutely devastated.  However, Santa does not need speech to understand. He landed on the boy’s rooftop and slid down the chimney.  He placed a letter board in the boy’s stocking.  Wonder of wonders, the boy who could not communicate could spell. He loved to spell and share his words with the world.  This was the merriest Christmas in his life.

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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.