Blog #69~Down Syndrome, Autism and Speech
I am often asked about Nick’s ability to produce words given the fact that he has Down syndrome and autism. He does have a vocabulary including a few expletives that he picked up from us somewhere along the way. I find it interesting how he can say those words pitch perfectly. This week I have a very special guest blogger. Brian Sabella is Nick’s speech therapist and shares his perspective on working with Nick at Suburban Pediatric Therapies:
Speech-Language Therapy and Nick
By Brian Sabella, CCC-SLP
I have been providing clinic-based speech-language therapy for Nick for over four years now. I feel fortunate for the experience for a couple reasons. First and foremost, he absolutely cracks me up—every week. There’s something about his brand of adolescent, slapstick humor that just resonates with me as a fellow male. Additionally, Nick’s family and support system are a pleasure to work with. They hold very high expectations of his communication abilities and understand communication takes other forms besides the spoken word. Nick uses a multifaceted system that includes spoken words, printed pictures, and electronic devices to communicate throughout his day. And as a speech therapist, I love it. For Nick, progress in “speech” means being able to communicate more effectively; it isn’t just about talking!
For those curious about the speech Nick does work on, here is a sample of some words we have practiced and continue to practice: help, Sprite, plate, shower, taco, pasta. With many of these words, Nick is not expected to articulate them exactly as you or I would, but rather, to produce them in a way that a listener would be more likely to understand. The idea is that Nick will probably be handing his conversational partner a picture of a taco anyway, so the spoken word is meant to enhance the communicative exchange. With this specific word, Nick will often produce aco, omitting the t. During our drill practice, I will call attention to my mouth and ask Nick to say it like I do, annunciating that missing t sound and providing a visual cue (such as pointing near the area of my mouth where the sound is produced). After a correct production is established, Nick is encouraged to say it again a total of five times. Performing a high number of repetitions is always the best way to learn a new movement pattern, whether that movement is a golf swing, a pencil stroke, or a spoken word. Admittedly, speech drill is not one of Nick’s favorite things to do, so his good efforts are always rewarded with a bit of praise or even a small morsel of food. You know, just to stay on his good side.
Most of my time spent with Nick in therapy hasn’t actually been focused on improving his speech. Some of it has. But I’m actually more concerned with improving Nick’s ability to communicate through other means. The reason for this is because, like many other individuals on the autism spectrum, Nick shows a strong preference for pictures. He also presents with apraxia of speech, which further complicates matters. This is why at home and at school, Nick’s uses a picture exchange system that helps him communicate during everyday activities.
Teresa carries around with her a set of pictures of Nick’s favorite fast food restaurants. When they are out running errands and it’s time for lunch, she shows Nick the pictures and he points to the logo of the restaurant he’s in the mood for. If he requests Taco Bell (which he usually does) he can then flip to a page that shows pictures of their menu items and he can indicate which ones he wants to order. Much of our time in speech therapy has been spent working on expanding his comprehension and use of these pictures.
Then there’s the Bored Board. As readers of this blog, you know that when Nick is bored, he finds ways of wreaking havoc in extremely creative ways. Picking up on these signs of boredom before Nick decides to dump fajita seasoning on the cat or spill an entire bottle of cooking oil on the floor will allow his parents to redirect these behaviors to something less destructive. The Board Bored shows Nick pictures of more appropriate objects and activities to request: DVDs, computer games, an iPod, a whoopee cushion, Flarp noise putty, a (fake) bloody Halloween hand, a sound effects toy that makes burping and glass-breaking sounds, etc. Nick and I have spent hours working on requesting with the Bored Board so that he can more effectively use it in a time of need.
Recently, our sessions have been focusing on having Nick formulate requests using “I want.” We set up a board using an alternative-augmentative communication (AAC) iPad app called Proloquo2Go. It transforms the iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch into a high-tech voice output device that helps a person communicate by typing or touching pictures. Nick’s screen displays a variety of preferred snacks and some phrases, including “I want.” Our goal was to have Nick indicate which snack he wanted by pressing “I want” then the snack item. When he does this, the device speaks the sentence “I want popcorn;” I then reward him with some popcorn. If Nick only touches the snack item without “I want” first, then I prompt him to press both.
As you might imagine, producing these sentences was initially difficult for Nick. But over time, he became very good at producing them. This graph tracks his progress and shows that Nick went from almost always needing support to produce these “I want” requests to, after five sessions, almost always producing them independently.
As you can see, speech therapy is not always about speech. For Nick, speech therapy is about helping him communicate effectively, even if it means doing so with pictures or electronic devices. With an alternative system of communication in place, Nick’s life is a little easier. And his pets are a little safer, too.
Brian Sabella and Nick working at Suburban Pediatric Therapies 🙂 ……
Special thanks to Brian Sabella, CCC-SLP for sharing his insights this week. For more about Suburban Pediatric Therapies check out their website at http://www.sptherapies.com. As you can see there is much more to communication then just speaking words. That’s what is in my noggin this week. 🙂