there everyone! This is Felice Clark, the author of the blog The Dabbling Speechie and I am here to
share how I stepped outside my comfort zone while working with nonverbal
autistic students. To be honest, I step out of my comfort zone every year
because something always comes up! My career as an SLP has been primarily in
the school setting in areas with rich diversity in culture, languages and
economic status. Within the first 3 years of my career, I had worked with
PreK-12th grade! It wasn’t until my 4th year in my district that I got
the opportunity to have TWO elementary sites (not the newbie anymore).
During that year, I did a lot of bilingual assessments, targeted articulation
and language disorders as well as worked with students with social pragmatic
disorders. My expertise was with the higher leveled students on the
autism spectrum and I hadn’t had many students with AAC needs since grad school
(I love pragmatic therapy). The start of my 5th year, I learned that one
of my sites was going to have two moderate-severe autism classrooms, k/1st and
2nd/3rd grade. That year, most of the students placed in those classrooms were
verbal. Most of my therapy focused on improving language comprehension and
social skills. That year I attended a PECS training and used that with one of
the students for about 4 months until he moved.
following year, things got a bit overwhelming for me. Both classrooms had more
non-verbal or limited verbal students. They ALL had different strengths
and weaknesses and wait for it……unique and diverse high interests.
Also, there were 2-3 students who could potentially benefit from a higher tech
AAC device. Did I mention, I had on average 75-80 students on my caseload
that year (that is a whole different sort stepping outside my comfort zone
say I was rusty with this population was an understatement. Here was what I did
from August to October…cried and complained weekly, asked Starbuck’s if they
would hiring me again and put on my “fake it till ya make smile”
every day at work.
of my therapy during that time worked on “requesting”…I want
_____. It is not a BAD place to start, but it was the only place I was
going with therapy and progress was not what I had hoped. I was also having a
really hard time connecting with my students. I networked with their
teachers to find out high interest activities, but some of my kids had an
attention span of 30-60 seconds. Add in limited joint attention abilities
with limited modes of communication and that makes for a very LONG day of
therapy. I was used to kids telling me what was wrong, sharing their opinion
and enjoying my therapy activities…….this was not always the case with my
mod-severe autism students. Most days, I felt incompetent and not a reliable
resource for my teachers. Plus, I was starting to resent these little guys and
gals because I was running out of ways to connect with them!!
October, one my SLP colleagues mentioned that they wanted to go to a yearlong
training on AAC assessment at one of our department meetings. I instantly
raised my hand and said “I wanna go!”
November-May, I attended 2 day courses every month through the County of
Special Ed. It was amazing! I finally had a starting point on how to
assess my nonverbal students current modes of communication, implement visual
supports for every session and target functional communication beyond
Immediately, I went back to my school and made my first CORE board. I brought that to every lesson whether I pushed in or pulled out students. There were 2 students that really needed to start with PECS, so I used what the teacher had made AND the CORE board. Then, I made visual necklaces with CORE communication words that I used often with my students such as “help”, “stop”, “all done”, etc. that I could use to communicate even if I didn’t have my communication boards handy (i.e. walking in the hallway).
the year went on, I continued to make fringe vocabulary and visuals that I
needed for these students. Above is a picture of the AAC starter kit that
I made to have more low-tech tools to aid in improving functional
communication. What happened during the rest of the year was pretty
is what I learned:
- CORE boards
changed my life! I had visuals for every session that I prepped one
time. Even if I wasn’t able to make fringe vocabulary, I always had
my CORE board visual ready to use.
- Try new
activities. You NEVER know what a student may like/not like.
It was humbling when an activity was a giant disaster and a small reminder
that I don’t know everything. I did a post 10
days that helped facilitated communication if you need
some ideas. If I didn’t try new things, I wouldn’t have discovered
that my kids liked doing a nature walk, they do love craftivities and
making snacks were a big hit!
- Modeling how to
communicate with the CORE boards and communication tools will help your
students learn what to do. For my kids with a higher desire to
communicate, caught on really easy when I communicated while touching the
- Even my kids who
were verbal, but needed visual supports benefited from aided communication
boards. My verbal kids who sounded really robotic began to have MORE novel
utterances with less visual and verbal prompts. They increased in
comments, requests, and greetings.
- Some of my kids
started calling me by name when I walked through the door! I was able to
build better relationships with them when I had more visual communication
tools. When my students were better able to communicate with me, I
was able to listen to them, which helped with reducing behaviors. I even
got some hugs and smiles….best day ever!!
- Getting staff
and teachers to use CORE boards is difficult. Teachers and staff are
not always used to incorporating new ways to communicate with
students. My biggest success was modeling my skills in the classroom
setting when I pushed in. Getting into debates about which approach
is better will only create friction. If they won’t try your ideas,
then you need to find the teacher who will!! Speech
has a great new series for getting staff more involved in using visuals!
- Figure out
skills your students need for communication throughout the day and then
target those areas. For example, greetings are great to work on
because the student has to greet teachers/staff on and off the bus, the
lunch ladies to get their food, the SLP, OT, coming in from recess and
circle time. I made some visual supports in my starter kit that help with
- Some of my
students didn’t progress the way I had hoped. Many of my students
increased there functions of communication (greetings, requests, opinions,
comments, affection), but a few were still working on initiating and
engaging. Keep trying, but remember if they don’t have a desire to
communicate, you have to work with high interest items to increase
initiation and joint attention first.
- Don’t stop
believing in your students. I had my days when I stopped believing
in my students abilities to communicate better. It’s horrifying to
write, but it was a struggle I had to overcome. You may wake up one
day a couple months later and see a completing different student.
It’s amazing when this happens!!
- Ask for help! I
went to my AAC guru’s in our district, asked the staff/teachers for
insights and went to trainings to learn more.
all, I learned how to LOVE my students better through that experience.
Currently, I changed school districts, so I don’t have those students
anymore. Hope this helps you have a starting point if you are going to be
working with nonverbal and limited verbal students on the autism spectrum.
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