It’s always a pleasure to catch up with our users to see what they are up to. We reached out to Akila Vaidyanathan, mother of long-time AAC user and a bright young man, Nishant, to find out more about his AAC journey.
Talk to Ms. Akila Vaidyanathan and you can immediately gather that she has spent years working with children with special needs and learning about AAC implementation. Apart from DSE Autism and MSc Applied Psychology, she also has several international certificates in RPM, PECS, AT Tools, FIE and Applied Drama. The Director of Amaze Charitable Trust, Coimbatore readily shared a few moving personal stories about Nishant and some key AAC strategies that she employs regularly.
Giving Them the Power
Akila says that she didn’t have to do much to teach Choice-making to Nishant, who was diagnosed with Autism when he was 3. He had always been particular about the things he wanted and wouldn’t settle for anything else. This fit well into the family’s plan for raising an empowered child.
Choice-making is an intervention used in children with Autism that allows them to dictate their preferences and have control over the environment. For beginning communicators, providing choices between a much-preferred item and something else is a great way to get them to communicate.
Paving the Way for Communication
Akila rightly warns about the consequences of parents preempting a child’s needs. When parents assume a child’s needs and wants, it can lead to them developing a learned behaviour of showing no communicative intent. Parents should instead encourage the child to express their ideas. To facilitate this, we may have to constantly create communication opportunities around the house.
Sabotaging the environment is one of the strategies Akila employs as a motivator for communication. It involves keeping the things that a child regularly uses out of their reach or hidden. This creates a scenario where children reach for their AAC systems to request their favourite things.
She also talks about the efficacy of reinforcer checklists, which gives caregivers an idea of things to use for rewarding desired behaviour. Reinforcers can be anything that a child enjoys such as cookies or playtime.
Akila has a Effective Reinfocers list that includes Indian snacks and desserts. Here’s another sample reinforcer checklist that parents can use to assess what works for their children.
Family that Models Together
While Nishant is a young adult now, fluent with AAC, and has admirable literacy skills, it was not easy getting here. The family experimented with several speech-generating devices (SGDs) and consulted several professionals to support his AAC journey. Nishant instantly took to Avaz because it gave him a voice. He found symbols easier to communicate with, although he had good language skills.The family consistently modelled on the AAC system which had an instrumental role to play in enabling his AAC proficiency.
Getting all family members on board can make a world of difference in how an AAC user perceives the AAC system. Especially for emergent communicators, watching their family members use the AAC system for communication can be a major motivator to explore the AAC device.
Respecting Their Emotional Intelligence
One of the myths surrounding people with Autism is that they can be indifferent or that they are devoid of emotion. Akila shares a few anecdotes that busts these misconceptions.
- The Sibling Connection
Nishant and his younger sister are like any other siblings in that they have a few shared interests and a few things that they can’t agree on. Nishant had never expressed how much he enjoys hanging out with her. But when she had to leave home to pursue her college education, he wasn’t too pleased about it. He was mad at his parents for sending her off to college. It took some convincing from his sister for him to be okay with her being away from him.
- Source of Solace
It was a sad time for the family when Nishant’s grandmother passed away. Seeing his loved ones crying did not sit well with Nishant. It made him anxious. He went over to his mom and used AAC to say,“Don’t cry. Grandma is ok. The universe will take care of her.” Some profound words indeed. More importantly, these are kind words from an empathetic child who couldn’t see his family in despair.
So, why is Nishant inseparable from his AAC system? Because he, like his peers, has a potent mind filled with thoughts, ideas, opinions and feelings. Thanks to supportive parents, learned professionals, and cool technology, he has discovered the power of communicating his ideas. He has so much to say – to communicate with those around him. His AAC system is his means of expression. It is a tool with which he offers words of comfort to those who need them, talks about what’s bothering him, and expresses his disagreements and reservations. Nishant is a prime example of how access to early intervention, resources and support systems can do wonders for self-advocacy and the self-worth of children with special needs.