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Matching a

Thinking System

to a student



he title of this article might appear strange to the reader, but it is quite intentional. When I was a child, I

was not able to think because I did not have a method of communication. After asking other people with autism about this, I have found that about half of the nonverbal people with autism I questioned felt the same way. We were extremely limited by our lack of a communication system that worked for us. We quite wrongly were assumed to have mental retardation because we couldn't even master a simple picture system of communication.

Whether one was able to think before being able to communicate or not is a moot point because uncommunicated thoughts are

nonexistent to the world beyond one's own mind. Whether the communication system meets the needs of the individual is terribly important. The problem arises when a person's intelligence is based on his ability to communicate. If he can't express his thoughts, it is assumed he is retarded and doesn't have the need for a communication system that allows for sophisticated thought. The person who has not developed a thinking process will never be able to, and the person who can't express his thoughts will be thought not to have any.

These thoughts are mine and I can only share them with the reader because I have been taught how to type. I was not able to access a computer keyboard myself like decidedly more able people with various disabilities. Every student should be assessed

by a speech pathologist who has expertise in augmentative and adaptive communication devices. If he is successful that is wonderful; however if he is not successful, facilitated communication should be taught. The current popularity of picture communication really unleashes assumptions about intelligence. It is quick and might be appropriate for a very young person, but is extremely limiting for others.

The technique that was taught to me was developed by Rosemary Crossley in the 1970's and 1980's. Great strides have been made in teaching people ways to become independent typers. It took me five years of typing with physical support before I had the control and confidence needed to be able to type without support. I still require a facilitator to sit next to me to keep me focused. Rest assured I type my own thoughts whether someone rests a hand on my arm for speed or not. Many students who are learning facilitated communication today are becoming independent typers in much less time. With practice they will be able to do grade level work by themselves so no one can deny their intelligence.

When a communication system was found that suited me, my life changed completely. I was educated erring on the side of mental retardation. When the school psychologist tested me, I scored in the range of severe retardation and certainly functioned in that range as well. When I was thirteen, I had the cognitive and adaptive skills of a two­year-old and probably have not progressed much with adaptive skills since then. I am now twenty-three and a student in Whittier College, but I still present as a person who others would label as someone with mental retardation. Just because I may look and sound a specific way, people assume the stereotype --they assume I lack intelligence. Even though I still receive really pitying looks from strangers, I have learned to live with them and enjoy the rich life I have.

Beginning when I was thirteen and was taught facilitated communication, the school world and my family recognized my intelligence and treated me quite well. When I was fully included in high school, I took honors and advanced placement classes with really few accommodations for my


disability. The teachers and other students respected my intelligence and were really patient with my autistic-like behaviors. Because I was able to communicate I was not only able to do grade level work, but I could communicate with my peers who learned how to be facilitators.

I graduated with honors and took the SAT, scoring 1370. With strong teacher recommendations and a 3.98 GPA, I was accepted to Whittier College as a John Greenleaf Whittier scholar. The professors enjoy having me in classes because I am always prepared and offer a unique viewpoint in class discussions. The only accommodations I require are extra time on tests and occasionally an alternative assignment if I am physically unable to do what the other students are doing.

The truly best part of my life is that I have friends. One of these friends was a fellow honor student at Whittier High. She has been working as a care provider for me for about five years, but spends a lot of her free time hanging out with me. My other friends are people who began as care providers, supporting me either at school or at my home, since I live off campus with a support system to enable me to live as independently as possible. My staff got to know me as an adult who has autism, but otherwise is quite like them. Basically I am able to type independently with all of the young adults with whom I spend my time. They are able to realize I have a sense of humor even though my facial expressions don't show it. They really are great friends who take me with them to parties with their friends who have become my friends.

Having a communication system that meets my needs has opened the world to me. The academic subjects I have been exposed to in

high school and college have truly ex­panded my understanding and appreciation of the world around me. Socially, my communication system has truly proved invaluable. Without it I would still be a "non-thinking" person wrapped up in autism instead of the intelligent person I am, who is thoroughly enjoying life in spite of a significant disability.