“Is there anything more you want to tell anyone?”
“I want to tell them … ”
That’s when Clay decided to get up from the keyboard he has been using to communicate with us, and stretch his legs.
My wife and I looked at each other. Tell us what? That he is planning to become a pastry chef? That he’s always wanted a pony? That he caught the dog drinking out of the toilet? What could it be that he had to say? Don’t leave us hanging here.
We took Clay this past Saturday to meet with a teacher who has had a lot of success helping people with autism learn to communicate by typing on a computer keyboard. Clay busted out of years of silence late last year, typing on a keyboard thanks to a communications consultant. We’ve been working with him (and the consultant) ever since with some pretty good success, and want to keep learning and pushing the envelope, so decided to meet with this new teacher as well. The technique we’ve been using is called facilitated communication. One of the best places to learn more about it is the Institute on Communication and Inclusion at Syracuse University. You also can get practical insight and inspiration from a wonderful blog by a retired teacher named Grandma Char.
So, here we were an hour and a half from home, in a stuffy classroom, working on Clay’s typing skills. The teacher set up the keyboard on one of the two tables in the room (there was also a set of shelves filled with board games and toys), but Clay was not ready to sit. We asked him if he wanted to say anything to this teacher he had just met. The teacher picked up the keyboard and blocked him into an empty corner. To our surprise, he held out his left hand for her to support, a sign that he wanted to type, and that he would let her help.
“Know what works,” he typed. The keyboard repeated the phrase in its robotic voice.
“What do you mean?”
He walked over to the table and sat down. She put the keyboard in front of him, and sat down to support his left arm. He started typing an answer.
“When in good typing spaces I feel better. In familiar spaces I feel better.”
He stood up from his chair.
“Are you done?”
He sat back down.
“No. I think I lot like to be here in this place.”
“Is there anything else you want to add?”
“I think I type good. Do another thing.”
We asked what he wanted to do, expecting him to say he wanted to take a break and go on the huge swing he had spotted as soon as we got to the school. We had him pinned between us at the table. He kept getting up from the chair, and trying to squeeze out. His body language was saying, “Get me out of here.” His brain had other ideas.
“I want to type more.”
The teacher told us some stories about students who—while she was working with them—scratched her, pulled her hair, fought her touch, and when she asked if they needed a break from typing (she sure did), they said, “No. Keep going.” After one session, a 44-year-old man she was working with said he felt like he had just run a marathon. Typing was exhausting work for these guys.
Clay wanted to keep going. The teacher decided we should play a game where he had to type a word into the computer that related to a category. He got up and they moved into the corner again.
“Type something that has to do with computers?”
“Type a word associated with exercise.”
“Type a college major.” (No way we thought he knew enough to type a response to this.)
“Type a part of a car.”
On the two of them went, while my wife and I watched. Then came the best one:
“Type the name of a country.”
“How do you know about Turkey?”
“In school, my teacher was a turkey.”
“I don’t think she was a turkey. What do you mean?”
“I think that she lived in Turkey.”
Ah. “You call people from Turkey, Turkish.”
Clay had been typing for over an hour. Time to wrap things up. That is when the teacher asked the open-ended question, “Is there anything more you want to tell anyone?”
“I want to tell them …” After a three or four minute pause, he finished the sentence. “I want to tell them … to bring me to eat now.”
The little guy was hungry. We got ready to go. When we asked him if he had anything he wanted to say to the teacher, here is what he said:
We found a nearby deli to grab a late lunch before the long ride home. Guess what kind of sandwich Clay ordered? Turkey, of course.