Speaking Without Words: The Lessons a Former Student Taught Me



Speaking Without Words: The Lesson a Former Student Taught Me

      This young man was the first student I taught that was non-verbal. My classroom aide asked me how we would do this, and I told her we would figure it out. I was a little intimidated by the thought of using a communication device and was thankful I got to start working with him the summer before he was a sixth grader in my class. I got to go to his home and learned from his mom, his therapists, and this boy himself. The speech teacher was very patient with me, and I finally felt confident to help him in my class.

     He taught me how people can say so much by not uttering a word. I learned to watch his body language and discovered a new language I had never noticed. He was a big flirt with the girls and loved the attention of the neurotypical girls who came into my class to help. He had some jokes programmed on his device and loved to tell the jokes. We were reading the book “Holes” by Louis Sachar, 1998 in class, and the speech teacher programmed one of the key repeated phrases of the book. When I read, “no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather” he would touch the phrase programmed in his device and give me a big smile.

     There was another time I knew that this boy had way more intelligence than could be measured when I went to his house to deliver the classroom pet guinea pig for a holiday weekend. He loved the guinea pig and liked to have it near him when he worked. His mom said he could have it at his house for the weekend, so I delivered the guinea pig, and as I was walking back towards the door, he used his communication device to say, ” Thank you.”  That was the first time he ever initiated a conversation with me. I was amazed and delighted. I looked at him and said, “You’re welcome!”

Q: What is one thing you wish teachers know about your child that is not on the IEP?
A: I honestly don’t remember what was on Zach’s IEP. It was so long ago. However, the importance of Zach’s use of his augmentative communication device can be new to many people.  A very important thing for Zach.  Coming up with different ideas and ways in which to encourage him to use it.

Q: Scores on tests do not define the child. What is something your child is really good at
that is not reflected on tests?
A: Zach is good at lots of things, but testing is not a possible or feasible way to evaluate his strengths

Q: How important is homework for your child? Is it just a burden, or is it a helpful
learning tool?
A: Homework is not helpful

Q: How old was your child when you first knew he/she had special needs?
A: Zach had a very traumatic  birth which left him with a very high risk of having special needs

Q: What is one piece of advice you have for someone who has a newly diagnosed
A: I would advise parents to look for many different answers to their questions/ concerns, as no one has all the answers to everything.  Although it can be exhausting, it can also be well worth the time to seek out information from many different sources.

Q: What is one thing everyone in your family likes to eat?
A: Yogurt

Q: What advice do you have for interacting with children with special needs?
A: Give them space and take time to enjoy their individual personalities

Q: What activities do you recommend to other parents to foster self-care?
A: I am not very good at this.  After all of these years, I am still struggling with how to find the time to take care of myself.  I do not feel I am very qualified to give anyone advice on this.

Q: Are there any support groups that you recommend for parents or children?
A: The Miracle Baseball League has always been supportive to us as a family through many years in so many ways.

Q: What are your favorite family activities?
A: We all like watching sports games on TV,  especially Cavs games.

     When this boy graduated from eighth grade, I had tears. He had come so far and we went to each 8th-grade homeroom to show everyone what he could do with his device. He told them jokes, I answered questions and everyone better understood how someone can say so much without speaking a word. I am grateful I got to be his teacher. Now, as a family friend, I love watching him continue to play Miracle League baseball. He has always loved sports, and seeing how happy he is to participate in the games is delightful.

     His mom gave some sage advice when she said to give kids space and enjoy their personalities. since no one has the answers to everything, it can be well worth the time to seek out information from many different sources. I am glad that Miracle League continues to be a source of support for this family.

     This family taught me not to be intimidated by a communication device. Once I learned how to use it and how to program it, it was a great learning tool. From telling jokes, to learning daily living skills and academic tasks, this augmentative communication device was paramount for him to get his wants and needs met. I am no longer intimidated and understand the importance of communication devices when talking to someone non-verbal.