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Giving a Voice to People with Autism: Why Is It Important?

Editor’s note: Tracy Vail will be the presenter for the Autism Society of North Carolina’s third annual fall conference, “Giving a Voice to People with Autism,” on Sept. 21 in Greensboro. The conference will focus on developing functional social communication skills in children and adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder who are non-vocal or minimally vocal. Register online.

I met my first child with autism in 1982 and have enjoyed every minute of my career with them, but the one thing that still breaks my heart is to see adults who have no way to communicate. As a speech-language pathologist, I may be biased about the important role of communication in life, but I see it at the very heart of everything we do as human beings.

To learn beyond simple matching and sorting skills, one must have language. To form relationships and share ourselves with others, we need a way to communicate. To think, plan, and learn to monitor our own behavior, we need language. To negotiate, share our thoughts, advocate for ourselves, and engage in meaningful work, we need to communicate. We not only need language to understand others but to use our OWN voice. When we, as human beings, don’t have an effective way of communicating, we often learn other, less adaptive and potentially more dangerous ways of communicating what we want or need or feel. Having an effective way of communicating often makes those problem behaviors go away or at least decrease in intensity.

People with autism often have difficulty learning this important skill. This is not “because they have autism.” If that were the case, then all people with autism would not be able to communicate. The reasons are wide and often unique to each person. Because of that, the solutions are unique to each person. Initial and ongoing assessments that are based on both the best research we have to date and the unique characteristics of the person sitting in front of us are needed to enable us to choose the best mode/method of teaching. This type of ongoing assessment takes a committed team, working together, analyzing data, and working collaboratively to find the very best solution, teach the strategy, AND change that communication strategy when something else might be more appropriate.

The reason I’m so passionate about this topic is because I have observed, over and over, the life-changing effects of giving people a voice. Sometimes it’s a small change such as the person who was once passive sits a little taller and smiles with pride when they are given some control over their life. They are able to communicate what they want to do or where they want to go. Other times, the changes have been dramatic when a child who was once silent begins communicating and it opens a whole new world of possibilities for them.

When we work together to give a child a voice, my experience AND research shows the child will begin choosing talking over using any augmentative system as soon as it takes less effort. In the meantime, their “voices” can still be heard. Some may never talk, no matter how hard we work. But, ALL can communicate. We are in an exciting time in which technology is becoming more and more affordable, and we can provide a voice using everything from a puff of air, to eye gaze, to touching a picture on a screen. A myriad of solutions and teaching strategies have been demonstrated to work. The key is finding the right one and then developing a team around that person. At this conference, we’ll talk about how to make that happen.

Vail is the co-owner of Let’s Talk Speech and Language Services, Inc. She obtained her BS in Psychology and Speech/Theatre from Frostburg State College and MS in Speech/Language Pathology from West Virginia University. She also obtained 56 doctoral credits in the areas of Early Intervention and Learning Disabilities. She has post-graduate training in the use of the DIR model (Floortime), TEACCH, Verbal Behavior, Applied Behavior Analysis, PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System), PROMPT and RDI (Relationship Development Intervention). Vail has worked with children on the spectrum since 1982 in a variety of settings including public schools, private schools, and private practice. She also travels nationally and globally, providing training and consultations for parents, teachers, organizations, and school systems.

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