Stop Working So You Can Talk To Me: A Lesson For Mom On Modeling AAC
Nathaniel pinched play dough bits off the ball I held out to him. He poked each piece into the Fun Factory press. Diligently and silently, he worked at the task. Once the press was full, he pushed down on the lever. He watched the play dough ooze through the three holes moving blue snakes across the table. For the twenty minutes that he worked, I modeled language on his communication device.
"It go(es) here."
"Do you want more?"
"I can see it!"
"More go(es) here."
"I push here."
"Here it (comes)!"
"I have more."
"What do you have?"
"Here you go... more."
"I push here."
"Can you push?"
"Here (comes) more!"
"Look! Look! It (comes) out!"
"What do you see?"
He occasionally glanced at the talker, but not for long. The goal for the activity was to elicit his expressive language. He offered a few head nods in response to the yes and no questions, but otherwise made no motion toward his device or an attempt to communicate with it.
"Stop working so you can talk to me," I said. I placed my hands physically over the play dough to break his concentration. I asked another open ended question in hopes that he would respond.
Immediately I thought how silly that sounded. For decades as a home educator I've been telling my children to stop talking and get to work. Nathaniel's disabilities means he has to stop working to get to talking.
It goes beyond silly; it is counterintuitive. No one wants to be interrupted when focused on a task. Whether making snakes with a play dough press or scuffing up hard dirt with a bulldozer and horse later in the morning, Nathaniel's work today was important to him. He contentedly did each for long stretches of time. That is until I encouraged him to stop so he could communicate. Both times he stopped his work. He looked at his device and then at me. But since the activity had stopped, the need to communicate about it also stopped. He had nothing to say.
"Do you like it?" I asked over both the play dough and the dirt, modeling all the words on his device. Once he shook his head yes; once he hit yes on his device. After the first, he resumed playing with the play dough in silence. After the second he turned his back on me and galloped his horse away in a mini stampede of dust. I wanted and expected more as a reward for my effort at trying to elicit language from him.
The communication dance between two people is complicated in the most ideal conditions. When to talk, when to listen, how long to wait for a response, when to encourage speaking, and when to accept that your communication partner does not want to talk... I struggle to do it right with my speaking children, spouse, and friends. We all do struggle to do it right. There is a fine line between following Nathaniel's lead when he wants to continue working, and making sure he is aware of the resources available to him if he wants to speak. If I error on the side of permitting continued focused work, he misses opportunities for expressive language use. If I error on the side of expecting or even demanding his expressive communication, I risk damaging our relationship.
This interpersonal relationship element gets harder when the task's goal is explicitly expressive language. Before I can determine Nathaniel's understanding of pronouns, word order, and AAC competencies, I must evaluate if he wants to speak to me at all. Might he be a little boy who, having been silent since birth, is at times at peace living in that world? In pushing him to speak when he doesn't want to communicate, am I pushing him to be discontent with how God made him? My goals for Nathaniel are bigger than expressive language. They include self acceptance and trusting in God's divine wisdom in how He knit Nathaniel's body together in his mother's womb. They include a strong work ethic that some day may allow him to determinedly complete tasks assigned by a supervisor or self-instigated. At times, the best practices I try to follow for alternative and augmented communication conflict with the theories I have for parenting the whole child.
We came in from playing outside, and Nathaniel got out the Legos. I stepped away as he started to build a car. I needed a break in modeling and encouraging his expressive language. Soon he was at my side. He tapped my thigh and held up his half made car and a set of wheels. "What?" I simultaneously signed and asked verbally, acting intentionally naive. He thrust the pieces higher and pushed against me. "Let's get your words. I don't understand you."
We walked to his communication device and immediately he pushed the Legos toward me again. "Do you need help?" I asked, modeling the single word, help, on the talker.
"Help me please," he replied. He understands some pronoun use. And some word order. And even a smidgen of manners. And perhaps modeling language on his device during play dough and dirt moments offered something he could draw on when motivated by Legos.
I wish I knew how to bottle Nathaniel's motivation and willingness to speak. I would gladly carry it along in his airway bag and uncork it when in a doctor's appointment or when the compassionate special education teacher ahead of us in line at Target pauses her day and attempts to talk to him. I would give six-packs of it to his dad and siblings and therapists and private duty nurses and all the people who work so hard to get him to use his device. I would save some on the shelf in the laundry room for the days when I want to quit working on alternative communication. But perhaps that is the problem - some days our work is focused on getting Nathaniel to use his device, and not on communicating and enjoying a relationship. Perhaps "Stop working, so you can talk to me" is something Nathaniel wants to say to all of us.