Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Supporting Michael to Express Original Thought

I type with Michael for one hour two times per week.  His grandmother types with him for shorter periods on days when I’m not there.  When I arrive, it only takes a minute or two for him to pull himself away from watching Thomas the Tank Engine, his number one passion, and sit down in front of his iPad.  We’ve developed a routine for our time together.  He completes “set work” the first half and then he engages conversation with me for the rest of the session.  I create the set work, which for him is essentially a series of short worksheets, based on the level of understanding Michael has illustrated in the prior session.

Michael is for the most part consistently accurate when he completes the work sheets.  In the beginning, he needed my physical support to type every answer.  Now he types the answers independently.  His mom and grandmother are always in the room with us when Michael types, and they are as amazed as I am that Michael gets the answers right.  He’s been given the same kind of “circle the right answer” work in school for the full 15 years.  None of his school work involves him typing words on a keyboard. 

No one figured out until now that Michael has a greater capacity to think.  I wonder how different his life would be now if someone discovered they could have challenged Michael.  In order to do that, they would have likely needed to trust that by giving him physical support to help with his motor planning while he typed, it would have directed him to access his brain to expand his use of a keyboard.  They would have had to explore Facilitated Communication as a possible intervention. 

Michael could already copy words and sentences, but he couldn’t fill in the blank word from a list or give a one-word answer from his own thoughts.  After typing together regularly for the past 6 months, Michael can now generate a one-word thought and type it on his own.  Michael’s most recent display of his intellect involves him copying a sentence and filing in the last word.

For example, I give him the sentence “when I think of the word girl the first word that comes to my brain is ______” and he needs to copy type it and fill in the blank. This is a copy of his latest work:
  • M.  when I think of the word girl the first word that comes to my brain is friend
  • M.  when I think of the word book the first word that comes to my brain is read
  • M.  when I think of the word hat the first word that comes to my brain is head
  • M.  when I think of the word library the first word that comes to my brain is book
  • M.  when I think of the word iPad the first word that comes to my brain is type
  • M.  when I think of the word snow the first word that comes to my brain is white

It may not seem like a great accomplishment, but Michael has been treated as though he’s not capable of creating original thought.  It’s been assumed that the most Michael could do is shake his head to acknowledge what he wants from choices that others suggest for him, choices that center around food items, movie titles, or tasks that he needs to complete.  He can also point to picture symbols, but his collection of symbols is small.

Now he is being given the chance to express his personal thoughts… and he is showing us that he has personal thoughts.  Copy typing is not seen as a means to generate self expression.  That makes sense… it doesn’t require must thinking energy to type someone else’s words.  Michael has been able to copy type long before he and I started to type together.  I decided to pair his ability to copy type sentences with a fill-in-the-blank.  This way, Michael gets to complete a task he can do independently as well as illustrate his intelligence by adding the “one-word answer” without needing physical support from someone else to type. 

I can’t overstate the importance of Michael’s accomplishment.  Before we started giving Michael added physical support to type, Michael only used the keyboard to ask his mom to download episodes of Thomas the Tank Engine by copy typing the titles from YouTube.  He is developing skills that only a few people in his life suspected he had.  He continues to surprise us.

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