My Child Can’t Talk. How Will I Know if Someone’s Hurting Him at School?

Today’s guest author is Alexandra Stack. Alexandra is a mother of a nonspeaking son and an advocate in New York. Alexandra first became passionate about Cameras in Special Education Classrooms years ago. Alexandra is a member of the Keeping Students Safe – NY group which is organizing to promote bills that will protect disabled students in NY and nationally.


The Role AAC Can Play in Protecting Your Child From Abuse 

My son is autistic and has a significant intellectual disability. He attends middle school in a self-contained classroom. Recently, we learned that one of his classmates was physically restrained by staff 33 times in a period of 8 weeks — at least once to the point of unconsciousness — without report to the child’s parents. My son and all the students in the classroom witnessed this and have been significantly traumatized by it. We are very grateful that the parent of this child shared with us this information when she was finally informed. Otherwise, we might never have known what our children had been exposed to, or why they were showing such signs of distress. 

The school, citing privacy concerns, has not shared any information with us, and in fact, has suggested that our children may not even have been witnesses. How they asked me, do you know your child witnessed these events? 

I know, because although he is nearly non-verbal, my son was able to tell me by using a communication program on his iPad. 

When I asked my son what the teacher would do when he was mad at his classmate, he typed what is pictured: “Squeeze,” and then “Squeeze – Hug – Squeeze,” a perfect description of what CPI calls, “The Children’s Control Position.” When I asked him how he thought that made the child feel, he typed, “Sleep,” “Hate” and “Afraid.” That is a clear description and an insightful observation, and it enabled me to understand the depth of the trauma he had experienced. 

How did my highly affected child learn to do this, and how can you help your child develop the ability to report abuse and even to self-advocate? The answer may be Assistive and Augmentative Communication.

A screenshot from an AAC device

Assistive and Augmentative Communication (AAC) is a broad term, encompassing low-tech modalities like picture cards and letter boards, as well as high-tech options like electronic programs on an iPad or dedicated device. AAC is for anyone who has trouble talking, even if only inconsistently or intermittently.

Research shows that the use of AAC does not impede the development of speech, and may in fact assist it. 

If you are a parent of a student in special education, you are probably already familiar with AAC, so I will just focus on two key points related to the question of AAC and the prevention or reporting of abuse. But first I want to say that the best way to teach your child to use AAC is to model the use of AAC. This is how children learn speech – by modeling that which they have heard since the moment they were born. Communication is not well taught by drills. You must simply have a copy of your child’s communication system and use it to communicate with them. 

Two Key Points

First, it is essential to teach your child to say no. So much of special education is compliance-based. This is dangerous because it teaches our children early on that it is not okay to say no or to have boundaries – even physical boundaries. The Communication Bill of Rights names the right of all people to “refuse, reject and say no.” You can reinforce this skill by honoring your child’s refusals (when it is safe to do so) and by asking your child’s teachers to do the same. Though this may be at times inconvenient, it is the way to respect your child’s developing autonomy and to reinforce essential communication and life skills. It is also the foundation of collaborative problem-solving.

Next, it is really important to steep this in real-world scenarios, and to do this repeatedly and for a long time. For over a year, every night when my son would come home, I would sit with him on the couch and tell him, on his communication program, what my day was like: “Today I had a headache, but now I feel better,” “Today at work someone was mean to me. I was sad.”

You have to remember that AAC such as what my son uses has only been widely available since the introduction of the iPad in 2010. Before that, devices cost something like $10,000 and were only available through health insurance or the schools.

In both cases, a child would have to be evaluated for eligibility by a speech pathologist. At the time, it was believed that there were certain prerequisite skills for the use of AAC (this is not true – there are none), so most children were denied devices. This means that the development of this technology and these programs is recent and is outpacing the field of speech and language pathology, so SLPs are learning along with parents and users (and often from them). So if you have been told that your child doesn’t need AAC, but you feel their communication is hindered by either a developmental or a physiological disability, you should demand that your school perform an assistive technology evaluation. This is true even of students without intellectual disabilities. There are professors, scientists, accountants, all kinds of professionals who use AAC part or even full-time. There is no pre-requisite for the use of AAC and no one is too “low” or “high functioning”. 

Everyone has the right to communicate.

Want to learn more? Here are some great resources:

5 Ways to Support Self-Advocacy in AAC Learners:

https://praacticalaac.org/…/5-ways-to-support-self…/

Modeling: Use AAC to teach AAC:

https://www.assistiveware.com/learn-aac/start-modeling

Communication Bill of Rights:

https://www.asha.org/njc/communication-bill-of-rights/

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