True confession here -- my daughter is in a communication slump. She normally indicates choices to symbols and words with eye gaze with clear intention. But not right now.
Right now we are getting mush. She won’t make a choice or her answers are so fleeting and subtle that they go unnoticed. But she doesn’t seem to care if we haven’t picked up her response. It’s the not-caring that concerns me most.
We wrack our brains trying to figure out “why?”
-- Is she not motivated to passively respond anymore?
--Does she want a way to express her own thoughts?
--Have recent medication changes dampened her affect so she doesn’t really care?
--Are physical issues fatiguing to the point she has no energy for communicating?
--Are we boring her with mundane choices?
--Is she exerting her teenage will?
--Is she slipping into learned helplessness?
In the past, the cure to her communication (or academic) slumps has been to raise our expectations. Require more, not less. Up the ante. I think it’s time for that again.
How to we raise the bar? How do we bring her out of this communication slump?
1) Find ways for her to express her own thoughts. I’d rebel, too, if all I could do was pick between the lousy choices that someone else assumes I might want to say. She doesn’t have a voice output device and is dependent on the symbol choices we offer. That has to be frustrating.
Spelling, while allowing unlimited expression, places heavy demand on her eye motor control. But in a supported form it might be a feasible supplement for communication. If I know the context, she wouldn't need to spell the whole word, which would reduce some effort. The trick is access; we could work on that.
A Pragmatic Organization Dynamic Display (PODD) system might open some options for self-expression, even if it is limited. Linda Burkhart has a good pdf about them too.
And all the while, we need to keep moving forward toward getting a device that allows for independent access. For my daughter, this involves eye gaze technology. That equals Beaucoup Bucks and a funding
2) Provide a means to do more than merely respond. This can still be accomplished through low-tech systems. She needs a way to initiate conversation, to share information, to ask questions, to comment. Topic setters, such as questions of her choosing recorded onto a sequenced message communicator, or a photo album filled with prompt pictures, are an easy way to allow a child to initiate conversations and share novel information.
In the past, we borrowed an Ablenet Step-by-Step from school. Her para would record events from the day as a little turn-taking script that she shared at the dinner table. What motivation it was to be in control of the dinner conversation! I need to check with our new SLP to see if this is something we could do again.
3) Move past yes/no. While yes/no responses open a world of quick responses, my daughter’s staff and I have gotten W-A-Y too comfortable with asking yes/no questions. As a result, part of the shut-down we’re seeing may be directly related to this.
Yes/no questions are closed. “Do you like this?” Yes? Conversation closed. Interaction is reduced to a “test.”
An open-ended question allows for further conversation. “What do you think about this?” Not only does it promote taking turns and engaging in conversation, it’s more natural…and more respectful.
There are far too many shades of gray between yes and no. How discouraging it must be to have to commit to a solid “black or white” answer when that isn’t what you mean!
“Is your day going well?” to gain a yes/no response is an example. There’s no option for degree of goodness or badness, nothing to promote continued conversation. An open-ended question of “How is your day going?” is much better. That’s what we’d ask our friends. Of course, in my daughter’s case we’ll have to provide a variety of responses, from ‘rotten’ to ‘fantastic,’ with a couple intermediate shades of gray (‘not so hot,’ ‘Okay,’ ‘pretty good’). Whether she is having a fabulous day or a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day, we are prompted to explore why.
Convenience makes it easy to fall into the yes/no trap. We don’t have to dig up symbols. Think I’ll spend today working on an expanded flip chart to make generic answers easy to retrieve. Hmmm. Symbol retrieval is a genuine management issue. Got any excellent ideas (short of an iPad…believe me, I’d spring for one in a heartbeat if the budget allowed)?
4) Increase responsibility for sharing information. There is something marvelously motivating about being the Keeper of Unknown Information. Some of my daughter’s clearest eye gaze – or, shock of shocks, switch use! – has come when she has something to tell us that we have no clue about.
Messages about what happened at school are great for this. We have a spot on our daughter’s home-school-home checklist called “Be sure to ask A about…” I include the answers so the staff can set up for my daughter to respond, but my hunch is that it defaults to yes/no. That old time and symbol management issue again…
Think I’ll add a similar “Be sure to ask about…” section to the school-to-home side.
5) Find motivating partners. Sure, my daughter needs to communicate with the adults in her life. We need her help to know what she thinks!
But let’s face it, much as I would love to imagine myself as a fascinating person to talk to, I don’t hold a candle to her peers. Her school staff is great, but they aren’t peers either. What she needs are good chats with the other high school girls…about boys, clothes, music, acne…whatever it is girls talk about. I’m not sure I really want to know.
And – here’s the rub when it comes to parenting teenagers – there comes a time when a young lady becomes highly motivated to talk with young men. Shudder. But we need to face reality.
So there you have five ways to work out of a communication slump. What other ways do you know? Please share!
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