My Own Words

Ean is a fascinating, bright, and complicated individual with autism who loves to engage with his peers and teachers.  He is a comedian and is thrilled by the response he gets, whether positive or negative.  He was previously labeled “nonverbal” because he had very limited language.  He was echolalic, which means that he could repeat phrases, but rarely initiated the phrases on his own.  His limited language interfered with the positive engagement of his friends.  Since he didn’t have words to engage them appropriately, he might lick them or blow on them to get a response.  Sometimes he would watch Nanny 911 and come to school the next day with plenty of material to collapse the classroom into chaos.

One morning, I had to break the news to him during first period, that my partner teacher, Nichole, was sick.  I could visibly see him start to escalate, his shallow breathing, his fidgeting, his fluttering around the room.  He was frustrated by the break in routine and the removal of the positive attention he got from Nichole, but also flustered because she was sick and he was unsure how to process this information.  He had an enormous amount of empathy for people, even to the point of crying when he saw a stranger with crutches, and he was upset that Nichole was experiencing some pain.  I knew that if I asked Ean to do his normal first period work in his present state, it would quickly become a very bad, no good, horrible day.  I had on my hands a “nonverbal” kid who wants to talk and some idea of what he wants to talk about, so… why not help him express his thoughts in a way others can understand?

I asked him if he wanted to make a video get well card for Nichole.  I had his full attention.   I said some phrases that I thought he might want to say and he repeated them.  They were short phrases like “Tummy hurts, Ow.  I know…Poor Thing.  I miss you.  Stay in Bed.  Drink your water.  & Get back here.”  We immediately plugged the video camera into the computer.  As we watched each clip, I cut out my voice, so only his words remained.  Then we took the clips of his words and put them in a PowerPoint slideshow with the text he was speaking.  Then we watched the slideshow again.  So during that first period session, he saw himself say the phrases independently twice (two and a half if you count the time we cut out my prompt).  He was so excited.  He immediately started to initiate the phrases from the video, and whenever he remembered that Nichole was gone, rather than throw something, he would use his words to communicate what he was thinking.  He got through the day with no behaviors, which was remarkable in itself, and also was able to use his own words to express his thoughts and emotions again and again.  The next morning at 7:00, he ran up to Nichole and said, “I miss you!”  He had never initiated communication of that sort before.  We both started crying and gave him tons of attention that he just soaked up.  It seemed that the powerful visual memory of himself using those words independently had overcome some obstacle in his brain and the words had become his own.

We made lots of Video Stories with him, working on one nearly every day, of him using language to appropriately engage people in conversations, ask questions, and maintain the conversations, make requests and express his opinions.  He’s become something of a jabber jaw now, using his words to make comments and engage his classmates.  He gets tons of positive attention from each communication.  We squeal with excitement, saying things like, “I love knowing what you’re thinking!” and “Ean, you are too funny!”  He giggles and eats it up and uses his words even more.

One day, when one of my aides was gone, Ean came up and asked me, “Amy, sick?”  I said, “yes.”  He stared at me with an extremely serious look that communicated something to the effect of “Don’t underestimate me.  Don’t hold back information from me.  This is important to me!”  He said, “No!  Fu..ral.”  He had overheard Amy tell me that she was going to be at her Grandma’s funeral.  He knew this was something serious, and needed the language and background information to understand how to process this event.  So… we made a Video Story about the funeral, not delving into afterlife issues, but providing him with words to communicate empathy, such as “I’m sorry you’re sad.  Hope you feel better soon.  I love my Grandma too.  Glad you’re back.  I missed you.”  He appreciated it and absorbed those words and phrases into his repertoire.

We also made a Video Story to help him transition easily to the new teacher when I moved to Austin.  We had a video conversation back and forth with the new teacher via email and regular mail when the files got too large.  She used her computer’s camera to film her introducing herself and asking questions about the kids.  They wrote down (when possible) and filmed their own introductions and questions, and we sent that video to her in the mail.  She answered back and forth and that was a tremendous help allowing all the students get accustomed to the idea of a new teacher.  We made ones specifically for Ean as well, highlighting all the components that would remain the same, the same aides, the same way to stay cool and earn money for a treat, the same free time activities.  We also incorporated some comical things to say since Ean was thrilled by making people laugh.  We added, “Phew, so hot in Texas.” Incidently, we had Ean point to Texas during that clip, and then later when he wanted to talk about me leaving, he would run up and point to Texas on the map.  This unexpected side effect reinforced how effective Video Stories can be to teach academic concepts as well.





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