Have you ever thought to have your non-verbal child join the children’s choir at church? How about enrolling him in a homeschooling community that has the word “Conversations” as part of its name? Would you dare enlist your non-verbal young adult son to co-present to students enrolled in a college-level class? Throughout the years, I have sought out opportunities to include my son in activities in which he expressed interest or that were learning experiences for him, for me, or for others. Perhaps our experiences will spark an idea for you and your child/adolescent to pursue.
Despite his apraxia of speech and related dysarthria, my son loved to “sing” in church. Though he couldn’t enunciate the words, he sang with a joyful heart and, recognizing the melody, adjusted his vocal sounds accordingly. So to me, the next logical step was to ask the choir director, Mrs. Harper, if my son could join the “cherub” choir. Neither of us knew quite how that was going to work, but Mrs. Harper welcomed my son with enthusiasm and love. The cherub choir met weekly to learn rhythms, sing solfeggio patterns (do-re-mi — as Julie Andrews’ character taught the children in The Sound of Music), and of course to practice the songs for Sunday’s service. “The kids got a lot out of it, with Nick being there,” Mrs. Harper remarked as we reminisced about the experience. She continued, “Emily (one of the other children in the choir) suggested they pass a globe around their circle as they sang He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands. There was some concern, (because of my son’s compromised balance) whether he would be able to accept and pass the globe without falling down,” she recalled. “But he did it!” Mrs. Harper thoughtfully summed it up, “Some things you remember for the rest of your life.”
That early opportunity to participate in a natural community came about because we paid attention to what my son could do and loved doing. I cracked open the door of opportunity by recognizing it and asking others to try. Mrs. Harper, the choir director, opened the door wider and welcomed him into the group. And little Emily threw the door wide open by seeing the possibilities for her peer to physically participate in a successful and meaningful way. And, as Mrs. Harper noted, it turns out my “non-verbal” son has perfect pitch. Imagine that!
Several years later, we had begun homeschooling and found a community called Classical Conversations that met once a week to learn together. It is based on the classical model of education, or trivium, and the first part involves memorizing and reciting facts. One might think that would be incredibly difficult for a child with memory and speech impairments. But as I considered this educational opportunity, I knew it could work for my son because much of the material is memorized with song! Surely that would help him. He had also been using an Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) device with speech-generating software. We programmed his Dynavox (and later iPad) with all of the facts the children had to memorize and he “recited” his answers by activating the appropriate button on the device. He had to navigate to the correct page, sometimes with assistance, and select the correct answer. The other children often wanted him on their team when memory games were played because he knew all the answers!
Whether it be public school or home school, what educational opportunities await your non-verbal student? Consider opening the doors that allow him to share something in show-and-tell, give a book report, share what he knows in class, or deliver a research presentation at a science fair. This can be done with AAC using a speech-generating device (SGD), picture boards, sign language, or hands-on activities (e.g. my son used a dry-erase board and cut-out words to diagram sentences).
By participating in natural communities and seeing the opportunities they present for your child to experience success, others will get to know your child and your family. Before you know it, you will both become “experts” of sorts and people might just start coming to you for advice, ideas, and knowledge. A few years ago, I was invited by a college professor to be part of a panel of parents who were actively involved in the education of their children with special needs. The class was Introduction to Special Education, and we gave individual presentations and then opened it up for questions from her students. The professor also asked if my son would take part on the panel. Again, he used his SGD to tell about himself and to answer questions from the college students. My son was so well-received by the class that one of the students even “photo-bombed” him when the professor took his picture. This was another positive experience for my son — and for me.
Each child with special needs is unique, as is the family. Our families face both similar and different challenges and frustrations. But you and your child can experience your own successes – if you look for the chance to overcome or work around those challenges; focus on what your child can do; and seek out activities, communities and people that will support your endeavors.
Opportunity is knocking. It’s time to fling the door wide open.
(This blog post originally appeared as a guest blog on eparent.com on January 9, 2017)