Monday, August 17, 2009

My breakthrough moment - teaching myself to think like a speech therapist

Can't sleep so I'm just going to write.

I had somewhat of a breakthrough with Philip last Friday. He wanted to email his mom, which was great because sometimes it's like pulling teeth to get him to write. But once he started, I couldn't figure out what he was trying to say. He started out with some weather related words like Sunshine and dry but then had all these other adjectives mixed in like dirty, smooth, hard...I couldn't see where he was going with it. Everything I guessed or asked him was a dead end. For a while it seemed like he was just playing with me - throwing random words out there to fill time. I was getting a little frustrated because part of me knew that he was trying to say something and that it was meaningful to him and I just couldn't get it but the other part of me was like, what if he's just being lazy and running out the clock until you leave...? So there was this internal argument going on inside me. Fiiiinally, something clicked - I can't remember what it was- and I realized the general gist of what he was trying to communicate...that his mom had a lot of things going on this weekend and he hoped the weather would cooperate for her. So sweet.

The thing was, he had a lot to say. He was telling his mom to "splurge" ( really! His word, not mine! He used it from his school vocab page) on a blender at a yardsale. And he wanted it to be purple. And he wanted to talk about the tupperware party she was going to be holding. The problem was, ( and it was a good problem!) he would throw out words all over the place about things ( yardsaling, weather, tupperware party) and I'd be jumping back and forth, trying to sort out which thing he was talking about. Hard to form grammatically correct sentences when you're playing hopscotch amongst ideas.

And then, I had an "Aha!" moment. I'm not sure I'm computer savvy enough to make this analogy work but I'll try: because his brain is wired a little differently than most people's and he doesn't really think in sentences, I think writing for him is like trying to convert a certain kind of file into a program for which it hasn't been formatted. It doesn't work. Error messages pop up all over the place. The communication is blocked.

Suddenly, I had this mental image of what must be going on in his brain. I pictured a tangled skein of ideas, kind of like the cloud that follows the Peanuts character, Pigpen. Philip tries to grab hold of one of those threads of thought and disengage it from the rest, but it breaks off and he comes away with a single word. He goes back to get the rest of the first thought but instead he ends up coming away with a piece of another thought. And that's what we see on the Dynavox - words representing whole complex thoughts that are sometimes somewhat related, sometimes completely unrelated, sitting next to each other. I told Philip about this mental image I had of his writing process- not exactly in these words but basically the same idea- and said, "Is this what it's like for you?" His face lit up and he indicated a strong Yes. I said, " Does it help you to have me sorting out the different thoughts and helping you organize them?" Because, even though it might seem like a dumb question or even a leading question, I didn't want to assume and I needed to know. Again, he indicated an instant, strong Yes. I practically cried. To see the joy on his face - the joy of being understood - that made me realize that my life counts for something good.

It's so obvious now that I've had that mental I've known it all along but now I understand it in a different way. Maybe I would have known it a lot sooner if I'd gone to school for speech therapy. Makes me want to go back to school again...

This kind of breakthrough doesn't happen often, and it doesn't really need to happen often - some days the mundane is fine- but when it does, it makes my heart sing and makes all the frustration melt away and EVERYTHING is worth that moment.


brilynne said...

I love this. Philip is lucky to have you.

gretchen said...

Wow! Amazing! And wonderful too.

Do you ever write down the various words and try to sort them out? Like unscrambling the letters of a mixed up word? Or is it already visual with the Dynavox? I'm curious.

So happy for you with the breakthrough. May it continue to transform your work.

KJ said...

MMmmmm. So good. So exciting. So cool!

Shari said...

How did I miss this? You're so amazing, Claire. I love reading your posts. I have a lump in my throat. :)