Friday, December 5, 2008

Michael's Street

Michael tries out the Springboard Lite

A few weeks ago, I started using a Springboard Lite in our therapy sessions with my four year old friend, Michael. He has been entirely interested in this machine every session since. Michael can talk, so he might not seem like a child who would need a computer that talks but Michael does not say very much nor tell his own story most of the time when he does talk. E.g. Someone asks, Michael, who came to your birthday party? Michael ignores the question (not understanding it nor knowing how to respond) or perhaps sings a few bars of the birthday song because he is reminded of this song by the word birthday .Michael does not have the language skills necessary for sharing about things that happened to him or telling about things he is planning, or spontaneously describing the things in life that capture his mind or heart. Michael’s language tends to be associative and rather indirect so it is hard to have anything that resembles a real conversation with him. I introduce the Springboard Lite with the intent that it should be a visual cueing system, provided mostly to remind Michael of things that he might like to say and thus giving him the opportunity to use language to communicate in new ways and talk about new things. My every hope for this strategy has been exceeded.

Michael says more using this machine

From the first week, Michael has been saying more than ever before with this machine and there is more reciprocity (the back and forth) in conversations. Much of the time we have been using the machine like a social cause/effect toy. Michael pushes a button that says blue and mom hands him a toy that is blue as though he had just requested it. Michael quickly catches on and he is soon studying the colors of the toys available to mom and using the machine to ask for the color toy that he wants next. Then he deliberately tests her to see what she will do when he pushes a color that does not correspond to any toy available looking at her curiously to see what she will do. No black toy but Michael’s hat is black, she says, pulling his hat off his head and showing him.

Michael's mom understands that the goal is more reciprocity

Michael’s mom understands as we start using this machine that she needs to respond to every button that Michael pushes as though he intended to communicate with those words. This is a little strange when he pushes buttons like Go, I, help. It is not obvious how one should respond to this message. Sure, I will help, I say with more enthusiasm than sense, trying to follow the rules that I set down for the adults. Luckily, it is soon obvious when Michael is exploring the buttons just to see what each button will say and when he is communicating with his mom using the machine. The quality of how he is using the machine is different and easy to read.  Mom or I begin to join him in button exploration when he is clearly just trying to discover what each button says. Cool! These buttons are all clothing when Michael opens the clothes page.  Michael, look! These buttons say letters! Michael responds to me by typing out the letters b e n a n d j e r r i c m which his mom recognizes as Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream. Even in this exploratory use of the machine, the activity is clearly a Joint Attention Activity rather than the kind of solo activity which Michael will often slip into. We don’t have to work hard to keep Michael engaged socially because he is motivated not just by the machine but also by the activity of using the machine socially.

Michael chooses to talk with mom

While Michael watches both his mom and me as we take turns trying out buttons on the machine, at one point, he starts to gently push my hand away in favor of doing the activity with just his mom. I love it when children show a clear preference for playing and talking with a family member. A primary goal of communication therapy should be to improve the breadth, depth, and pleasure in communication between a child and his or her loved ones. This is harder to achieve than you would think, (which would be a good topic for another blog post). Watching Michael initiate new conversational topics with his mom inspires me to reflect on a major pleasure in parenting my own children. Even now with them all grown and usually far away from me, they call me, text me, email me just to share something little that just happened, chat about some thought, or explain some plan that is brewing. I feel grateful that my children want me to know about so many of the chapters of their life story. And so, I am also grateful and excited to see Michael wanting to share in this way with his mother—and it is just about to get even better with Michael and his mom.

Michael tells about the street he lives on

Michael found a page on the Springboard Lite that shows numbers (and would speak the numbers as he pushed each one). He tries each button in order at the beginning but then he starts typing out a sequence of numbers like this: 2107, 2109, 2111, 2115, 2117 then he did 2104, 2106, 2108 and so on. His mom realizes that he is writing house addresses from his street--first the odd side of the street and then the even side. He even skipped some addresses, which was probably because some addresses were skipped on his street. Michael introduces an entirely unexpected conversation which Mom and I both realize opens new conversational opportunities.  This topic, one that mom and I would never have thought to bring up, can be expanded and revisited.  We have learned that Michael likes to talk about house addresses. Michael has learned that he can talk about his street and that his mom is interested in what he has to say.  There we go, this is the reason we tried this machine in the first place.

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