I think we can all relate to feeling alone during the pandemic. It was hard to be so isolated and to figure out how to shift the ways in which I work with people. Many of my students rely on me as their main communication partner. So when I was no longer able to see them because of the shut downs, their voice was no longer accessible. That is a pretty horrible feeling. Gut wrenching actually.
The plus side to the whole country shutting down was that it gave me time to solve some of these larger-scale problems. I knew we needed more access to communication partner training programs so that our students aren’t in danger of losing their voice, and so many more can gain their voice. However, the thought of taking on this monumental challenge was daunting as I was sitting in my home office all on my own.
When Lisa reached out to share her idea about partnering to create something bigger, together, the weight of the world lifted off my shoulders. Providing an autism educator training program with a variety of communication strategies speaks directly to the need I was feeling.
When we presented the idea to Edlyn, and she was all in, she asked us to dream big. What would we want to do if we had the resources?
The combination of feeling such a big need to help others get the training they need and continuing to have more time with further shut downs, along with the prompt to think big, really unlocked this dream for Lisa, Edlyn, and I to create together! Once we started dreaming bigger, the resources to make it happen started to appear.
With the generous funding from Ability Central and The Autism & Communication Center at CLU, we were able to act on those dreams. I cut my 1:1 clients down by 70% and stopped offering my group trainings for two years to be able to put the needed time into this big dream. Lisa did similarly. Edlyn has also invested a significant amount of her time into this dream. If we don’t do it now, when would we?
While there were many hardships that came with the pandemic, there are silver linings too. It has been a dream come true to collaborate with over 30 amazing humans on this project. It has been a breath of fresh air to collaborate with Lisa and Edlyn. It has been a healing process to be able to create something so big with a team of multidisciplinary collaborators.
There’s a lot of division in the autism community. There are so many opinions about the “one right way” to address behavior; the “one right way” to approach education; the “one right way” to communicate.
Experience has taught me otherwise. In years of working with disabled students, I learned there is no one formula that yields success. There’s no “one right way” to access communication. I’ve had students access devices by using a knee switch to scan, by using a joystick on their wheelchair they controlled with their thumb, by lifting their head to indicate “yes” as they worked with someone to provide partner assisted scanning.
There are so many ways to access communication, so why should there be "one right way” to teach a student to communicate?
Any experienced educator will tell you there is no one-size-fits-all methodology that helps every student be successful. There is no magic bullet or precise recipe to follow to unlock potential. Every single student is different. Are there similarities? Sure. And what you learn with one student can inform how you teach the next. But by and large, the most effective way to be a good teacher is to know how to teach, how to be creative, and to take risks trying new things that will prevent you from ever giving up on your students.
The combination of pandemic and new motherhood for most of 2020 and 2021 was extremely isolating personally and also put a stranglehold on my professional motivation and creativity. It was only after connecting with Julie and Edlyn in a social way that I started to really toy with the ideas of professional collaboration. Through the lens of zoom happy hours, I realized that we were like-minded in our thinking. We were all open to lots of new ideas and also committed to working ethically to develop best practices in collaboration with the experts - autistic people themselves.
It makes us laugh now to look back at our naive May 2021 selves and think about how we envisioned this little training we planned to film with our iPhones over the course of a month or so. Because what we learned once we started really diving into the work, was that to make this the most comprehensive, inclusive, and thorough training, we needed months of planning and collaboration among ourselves, a team of autistic contributors, and a team of professionals.
Our resulting training course, Communication For Education, is the training I think we all wish we had as we embarked on our journeys to help nonspeaking autistic students. It’s not just how to adapt academics or how to teach communication skills; it’s all the peripheral knowledge that goes into proper support.
When I was leading a pilot program for nonspeaking autistic students using spelling and typing in a Maryland public school, we had a lot of knowledge but not necessarily the right knowledge. The county was (and still is) entrenched in behaviorism and there was a lack of knowledge regarding apraxia, dyspraxia, and regulation - this undoubtedly hindered our efforts to support students as successfully as we could have in their general education classes. Our success was also hindered by unrealistic expectations of some parents about what was possible in a large public school with limited resources and a tight bureaucracy.
This course attempts to address all these things. It provides so much needed information but also acknowledges the realities of implementing change in large ways.
It’s not a recipe for success or a magic bullet (remember, those things don’t really exist…), but it is a comprehensive dive into all the competencies educators and communication partners need to develop in order to be the most effective support system possible for their nonspeaking autistic students.
It’s designed to give participants a toolkit of strategies to pull from when they’re stuck and help them feel empowered to try creative solutions that benefit their students. We’re enormously proud of the course and can’t wait to see the impact it will have on our community.
If you relate to our journeys and want to join us in this one-of-a-kind training program, we would love to see your face!