‘The father apologized. ‘Mind if I try something?’ By the end of the flight, it clicked. He was astounded.’: Dad ‘nearly cries’ after speech pathologist teaches autistic son to communicate on plane for the first time

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“I just had such an affirming experience.

On my 8-hour international flight back from a conference, I sat next to a father and son. In broken English, the father began to apologize and warn me that his 10 year-old son had severe nonverbal autism, and that this would likely be a difficult journey.

I told him not to worry, I was a speech-language pathologist with lots of experience with minimally verbal kiddos. Challenging behaviors began even before take off: screaming, hitting me, and grabbing for my things. The father repeatedly apologized, but did little else.

I asked him how his son preferred to communicate. He didn’t seem to understand. Perhaps this was a language barrier, but I think instead the child had very little experience with communication therapy. I put away the talk I was working on and asked if I could try something. He nodded.

I tried to see if he was stimulable for a communication board. I started by pulling up some standard images for basic nouns on my computer but I could tell that screens really bothered him. So, I summoned my god-awful drawing skills and tried to create a (very!) low-tech board.

And by god, it clicked. I made symbols for the things he was grabbing, for his favorite stuffed penguin, and for his dad. He took to it very quickly. I introduced way more symbols than I normally would, but hey, how often do we get an 8-hour session?!

By the end of the flight, he had made several requests, initiated several times, and his behaviors had reduced quite a bit. The father was astounded – clearly no one had ever tried an AAC (augmentative and alternative communication) approach with him. I gave him the paper and showed him how to use it, and he nearly cried.

This was the human desire for communication, pure and simple. To connect with another person and share a thought. Communication is a basic human right, and I was overjoyed to help someone find it. What a privilege and a gift.

As I face the upcoming job cycle and the nearly endless imposter syndrome of academia, this was precisely the reminder I needed about why I love studying language and communication development. It was a good day to be a speech-language pathologist!”

Courtesy of Rachel R. Romeo

This story was written by Rachel R. Romeo of Boston, Massachusetts and originally appeared here. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

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