Dumb

Missy had a speech therapist in her early intervention setting, at least I assume she did…I can’t actually picture a face or recall a name. The focus then was mainly her physical abilities and limitations and accessing equipment. She did have a very basic eye gaze board with a peep hole and two choices displayed. By the time she arrived at school that had progressed to four choices! Without a reliable nod or shake we interpreted her smiles to confirm what she was saying.

As a parent {and a highly strung one at that!} leaving the comfort of early intervention for school was a terrifying prospect. The school staff were familiar with the wide-eyed terror of newbies and were gentle. Two of the gentlest who cemented my choice of school were her teacher…and her speech therapist. In early intervention the physiotherapists had been my go to, her key worker and our safety net. This seemingly new breed of therapist presented  a simple Pragmatic Organisation Dynamic Display {{PODD}} book and my girls world changed.

I learnt from gentle-speech-who-gave-my-child-a-voice, let’s call her Miss Honey, to assume competence. If I thought she reacted…she did. If I thought I saw a choice made…I did. Previously I would have seen myself as my daughters biggest fan and greatest advocate but within weeks Miss Honey was reporting nods when I had only ever seen smiles. And then my kid exploded in a sea of language and expression. Choice is so important and had been our primary concern to this point. I thought I knew her  well so often filled in the gaps but when my “she will never communicate, learn or interact with you” child started to say the unexpected it was a revelation. Her personality began to fully reveal itself and it was a sight to behold.

The aspect of my child’s disability that makes me most sad has nothing to do with her but rather people’s perception of her. Too often people assume having a complex communication disorder means she has nothing to say. That is simply not true. The only thing that was lacking was a reliable and suitable way to say it! As my daughter developed her proficiency with her PODD she showed us her sense of humour. She revealed her observations of life…and reminded us she is always listening…a l w a y s!

Yourdictionary.com defines dumb…”The definition of dumb is unable to speak or someone or something that appears stupid”. Unfortunately many people assume “unable to speak” suggests someone is “stupid”. My pleasure and mission in life is to show those people they are wrong. Thanks to the Miss Honey speechys in our world and a super determined girl we are well on the way.

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Communication is something I think many of us take for granted. I know I did…pre my-teacher-Miss K. Happy childish banter; debriefing with friends; explaining symptom to a doctor; ordering a coffee; sharing a joke; revealing your innermost thoughts to a loved one; smashing a job interview. All of these and much more  is essential to a fulfilling life. People with little or no speech have to find different ways of expressing all of this. And they do!

I had the privilege of attending the AGOSCI conference in Melbourne over the weekend and it has left me full of excitement for my non-verbal child. I thought I was up with the AAC club but there is so much more of a rich and vibrant world of AAC out there than I realised. Technology has come a long way…and so have expectations of people who speak differently. Our Miss K is a multi-modal communicator. She uses a couple of key word signs, body language and facial expressions, her voice and intonation, a PODD book and her voice output eye gaze device. So, really, we are all multi-modal chatters…phone, text, insta, Facebook. 😉 And even these can be accessed on many speech devices.

PODD is missy’s favoured way to make her point. She has a good range of language to use in her most practised format. But it is the eye gaze device which points to a great future. I have noticed that when we are out in the community people look at her out of curiosity rather than the usual rude staring if she has her device. You see it’s essentially a tablet so she looks more like your average teenager than a kid with special equipment. And it takes very little expertise to set up. The independence she craves is coming…then I’ll have something else to worry about!

Being immersed in AAC for a couple of days normalised our world. I heard speech therapists present exciting new research, teachers passionate about the voice of their students, parents learning with and advocating for their children…and I heard AAC users themselves. I am not going to use the “I” word because these were simply people living their lives and telling their stories. These were people who had heard the same “can’t” won’t” and “will never” that we heard about our girl…but they didn’t listen. They found the courage, support and the voice they needed to rewrite the medically expected story and make their own. I listened to the wit and humour of a woman who works in the legal profession and could see my girl being the writer she’d like to be. I heard about the crazy antics of an young man who skis and dives and rides bikes in the bush and saw a kindred adventurous spirit to our kid.  And I got teary watching Missys friend present her work on her favourite invention…the PODD book….because it gave her a voice. Augmentative and Alternative Communication may be an unfamiliar term to many but to our family it is a way to see our girl…her humour and dreams, her wit and kookiness…and it’s her golden ticket to the world.

5 am

The “look” when strangers see Missy in her wheelchair is familiar now. It is part sympathy, part curiosity and basically says having a kid in a wheelchair would be the worst. But it’s not. There are challenges, for sure, and I do wonder if she longs to run and play but overall the chair is ok. The lack of talking though…that’s what gets me.
Missy manages incredibly well with her PODD book and her voice output Dynavox. The hope of assisted communication is more than simply conveying wants and needs…it is about showing yourself. And she does that. Her sense of humour, her intelligence and her curiosity all shine through. The device, though, needs to be set up so she has to be in her wheelchair. The book requires a competent communication partner, good light and an alert kid. Neither of these work for her at 5 am. At that time, and in pain, she needed to be able to yell “Mum! My leg is stuck”. But she couldn’t.
She got my attention alright. I went to check on her. But I misread her. I didn’t understand. I put another blanket on thinking she was cold. So she stayed as she was…for another hour. There was no yelling. No desperation. She sounded a bit sad. Even when I went back in I tried several tricks. “Do you have a headache? Is there air in your tummy?” I vented her PEG, I gave her some water and finally I pulled her blankets back.
The sight still puzzles me. A leg should not be at such an angle. I don’t know how she did it. The relief when I gently moved her leg was immediate. It didn’t seem to be a sudden reduction of pain. What I saw was the relief of being understood. And that says everything.