Back to School Tip for Non-Verbal Children
Going on vacation is exciting for most people, but, when it’s over and you’re telling, or boring, friends and family with all the details is part of reliving the fun. That is, if you are verbal. My son couldn’t do this and it made me very sad. BJ has Cerebral Palsy and is non-verbal, making it impossible for him to return to school and share his vacation news. I don’t know about you, but, I couldn’t wait to get back to school to swap stories with my friends and have my news day to tell my class about my vacation.
Helping BJ Share
As a family we are constantly trying to give BJ new experiences. We look for activities that he can participate in despite his wheelchair and poor hand function. He is a vibrant, social boy who wants to be where the action is. We fill our vacations with as many fun activities as we can, but, when he was younger he had no way to tell everyone about what he had done. His hand function was not good enough to operate a voice output device and iPads weren’t invented… hard to imagine I know.
I was frustrated watching him just smile when teachers asked BJ “how was your vacation?” I decided he needed a way to share his news.
Sharing his story…his way
We started to use our many vacation photos to tell a story. Using Microsoft Publisher we combined photos and text into a book format. We would then laminate the books to make them sturdy enough for him (and easier) to turn the pages.
It was important to give information that encapsulated, not only, what we had done, but also, BJ’s feelings and reactions to the outing or event. An example would be our trip to Disneyland. Instead of writing under the picture “we went to Disneyland and rode on the Buzz Lightyear ride”, we would write the following: “I was so excited to go to Disneyland on vacation. My favourite ride was Buzz Lightyear. I loved Dad helping me shoot the targets. Mum and AJ, my sister, were in one vehicle and Dad and I were in the other. Boys versus girls is fun. Guess what? Boys won!” This sentence gives a teacher or communication partner more to comment on. BJ would usually respond by smiling or excitedly vocalising while the teacher shared his news. He also could show which activities were his favourites by flicking to the page he liked best.
It did take a little educating communication partners to ensure BJ’s news was shared his way. We didn’t care if he skipped ahead to the middle of the book because if that was his favourite it was only natural for him to want to ‘tell’ that bit first. BJ was at a disadvantage being down low in a wheelchair and we had to ensure that whoever was looking at his book was at the same level so he was ‘telling the story’.
Creating Successful Opportunities
The books became such a success that we started making them at the end of each weekend. They were just a short version of the vacation books. Staff and students used to love Monday’s when BJ would come with his weekend news. I have met staff years later that have commented how much they missed it when BJ moved from their class and they no longer had the news books to look forward to on a Monday morning. Not every weekend was jam packed with exciting news. Some weekends would be a picture of BJ having a haircut, a trip to the nursery to buy plants for the garden and a picnic in the backyard. It didn’t matter what the news was really because each week the staff was learning more about BJ that they couldn’t pick up from incidental class conversations. It was another opportunity for BJ to engage with others and it gave an insight into his likes and dislikes.
BJ now has a voice output device and each week’s news and vacation stories go on that. He still enjoys reliving ‘the old days’ by looking through his old storybooks so they have stood the test of time.
It may sound like a lot of work to Moms and Dads who are already dealing with therapy, medical appointments and all the other demands of a child with special needs. Once we became familiar with the process of making the books it didn’t take a lot of time, maybe a half hour. It isn’t much when it gives someone a voice and a way to participate in a ‘conversation’. It became part of the routine and we did sometimes dread it, but, when we handed it to BJ to take to school and saw his joy, we felt our efforts were appreciated.
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