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Headshot Young Girl

Emily Thomas


United States

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Meet Max (a composite of several different students at Northeast Metro Intermediate School District and no personally identifying information is included here). Max is a twelve-year-old student on the autism spectrum and also has a cognitive and developmental disability. Max has complex communication needs. They rarely vocalize and when they do it is always in response to a prompt, they use some basic ASL signs, and will point to options on their vocabulary core board. Max is learning how to use an iPad as an Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC). Max’s teachers and other educators at his school use a Teacher-Child Interaction Training (TCIT) model to validate and encourage any communication attempt. They try to honor the message and expand on what is being said. Yesterday in class, Max was using his AAC to press all of the different food options available; chip, cookie, apple, banana, juice, water. The teacher said to him, “You are thinking about lunch. We just finished lunch.” For the rest of the afternoon they were offered some additional snacks and refused them, but continued to say the different foods on their AAC. What was Max really communicating? Those who know them the best might know what Max is trying to say, but sometimes that may not be correct. This is frequently the case for students with complex communication needs and other students with the most profound special education needs. They might use an AAC or have an interpreter to use a communication system that is more familiar to the general population. This is the challenge that I am bringing to the Innovator Academy: How can students with complex communication needs successfully share their voice and stories with the wider community?

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