We Use a High-Tech Speech Generating Device, But We Prioritize Connection
Rich and I are ETC trained. In the foster and adoption world that means we’ve taken extra classes beyond what was required for state licensure. Specifically, we’ve taken classes that focus on helping children with adverse childhood experiences, or “children from hard places” as the class creators often refer to them. The ETC training provided a window to understand the consequences medical trauma and loss of family brings in Nathaniel’s life.
ETC stands for Empowered to Connect. The intensive course believes in a unique form of presumed capability – that every child has the “capacity to grow and overcome adversity when cared for in a supportive, connected, and nurturing environment.” It depends heavily on trust-based relationships and interventions. Those interventions require caregivers replicate cycles from the first year of life: baby has a voice (cry) to express needs and a loving caregiver meets those needs.
We took the ETC course very early in our journey as Nathaniel’s parents. We were not in class because we had a list of problems to solve for him. Rather our experience parenting seven typical children to adulthood had exposed how difficult a job parenting is. We learned the hard way that everyone did better when maintaining quality relationships usurped all other goals. We wanted to know more.
Life experience. Training in trust-based relationships. It is no wonder that my approach to Nathaniel’s communication sits so deeply in connection.
My advocacy for Nathaniel’s alternative communication options may seem disoriented and lacking a focused path. One month I am singing the praises of his high tech speech generative device and sharing resources for such. The next I am looking for where I can take sign language classes. Actually, I make that swing in a week! This is because relationship is my goal, and relationship is messy. S.M.A.R.T goals for building connection look very different than S.M.A.R.T. goals for using one specific form of AAC.
So how do I chart our course?
I don’t know other than by observing what doesn’t build a connection. Insisting that Nathaniel solely use his communication device despite the fact that he’s very close, looking me in the eye, and trying to gesture or sign doesn’t build connection. Demanding that he repeat on his device what he just conveyed with an eyebrow raise or nod of the head doesn’t build connection. Proclaiming non-invested directives like, “I don’t understand you; use your talker!” doesn’t build connection.
How do I merge all that while still believing a high tech, robust vocabulary, speech generating device is a really really important tool for Nathaniel to gain competency with? For now, I’m trying to change how I respond to Nathaniel’s signs and gestures.
If I understand what he is saying in sign, gestures, and facial expressions, I accept them. I repeat back what he said and add my response. If possible, that aided language input is on the device. If turning to the device, due to lack of proximity or intensity of the moment, will break our communicative connection, I provide aided language input in key word signs. Yes. This means I am expecting myself to learn more signs. And I am working again to keep a device close at all times.
If I don’t understand what he is saying in sign, I say things like:
“Can you help me understand?” and let him decide which tool to use to do that.
“Can we use your talker to help us figure this out?” and respect him if the answer is no.
“I see that trying to say what you want is hard. Can I show you what I think you are saying on your talker?”
If he gets upset because we aren’t quick in repairing the communication breakdown, I say things like:
“I’m here. You have my attention until we figure out what you are trying to say.”
“Its okay to feel frustrated when you can’t say what you want. We will solve this together.”
“Let’s try again.”
I am so fortunate that my nonspeaking son wants to communicate and connect with me. This may not be the case for every parent wrestling with AAC implementation. It may not always be our experience either. The relationship we build and deepen now is vital for the inherently hard child-parent days to come as Nathaniel grows older. I know from my ETC training that a connected child has more confidence, clarity for learning, impulse control, short-term memory, and a deeper sense of safety. Our priorities and goals in communication have a wide reaching impact on the whole child. I’m willing to look a little zig-zaggy in our AAC approach for the benefits that connection brings.