By Edlyn Pena, guest blogger
As a researcher who studies ways to support the access and success of students with autism in higher education and a mom to a handsome six-year old son who uses an iPad to communicate, I aim to help Ido advance his message to educators, professionals, and caregivers. My objective here is to provide context and encourage you to learn more about approaches that enable nonverbal individuals to spell and type to communicate. I’ve received criticism for endorsing approaches like Rapid Prompting Method (RPM) because they are not evidence-based. There is still much speculation in the autism community about the legitimacy of RPM and other approaches that teach pointing to letters and typing. Research on these methods are lacking. I understand that professionals will continue to question these methods until they are rigorously studied and published in peer reviewed journals. I am the first to believe in well-designed research studies. As an academic, I also believe in being open to new possibilities, ideas, and presuming competence in individuals on the spectrum. Without this openness, I would have never exposed my own son, Diego, to RPM. He would not be where he is today with regard to sharing how autism affects him daily (e.g. “Paying attention is tiring”) and to articulating unusual ideas (e.g. “Eight elephants play in a new kind of ecosystem”). I would not know the level of depth of thought and curiosity hidden in his mind. Diego’s voice is now being heard.
Ido is a pioneer in advancing our knowledge about autism and people with complex communication challenges. Ido’s book, Ido in Autismland, is by far the most powerful book I have read about autism. Other authors write compelling books about autism, prompting us to think about those on the autism spectrum. But Ido is different. He is extraordinary because he changes the way we think about autism. He disrupts our misguided notions that lack of speech equates to lack of intelligence; that students with autism are impoverished of expressing or recognizing emotions; and that all students who are non-verbal belong in special day classes without the opportunity for inclusion. Contrary to many of the messages the world receives on a daily basis about people with autism, Ido’s book tells us that the minds of people with autism are as complex, creative, and intelligent as yours and mine.
On a personal level, reading Ido’s book was transformative and allowed my relationship with my son to turn a corner. I now talk to Diego like I would any other smart and capable 6-year-old. I make efforts to talk to Diego, not about him, when he’s in the room. Ido, Diego, and children like them are nonverbal, affected by autism, and brilliant. By typing to communicate, they blow us away with their complex insights, imaginative ideas, and witty humor.
If you are a professional in the autism field, I invite you to think outside of the box about what “conventional wisdom” on autism tells us. Without doubt, this takes courage. It means acknowledging that we do not know everything about autism. You might learn, as I did, that our perceptions about the capabilities of non-verbal individuals are wrong. Rather than dismiss RPM or other approaches to support typing, I encourage you to educate yourself about the approaches. Interact with individuals who have learned to type. Read Ido’s book or watch videos of children and teenagers who point to letter boards or type independently. For example,
And, of course, Ido has posted great video clips of him typing on this website. For example,
From one professional to another and from one parent to another, I urge you to take a chance to learn more before dismissing approaches to support our children who otherwise have limited means to communicate. We have the power to make real change by enabling the individuals we care for and serve to communicate in rich and meaningful ways.
-Edlyn Vallejo Peña, Ph.D.
Graduate School of Education California Lutheran University
My high school has an old farm because it has a magnet program for intensive studies in veterinary science and agriculture. It is really nice because the students care for the animals. Over vacation we have to feed them. There are rabbits, hens, sheep, goats, a horse and a llama. The goats are intelligent and eager to escape to eat leaves. They have the same lock the sheep have on their pen. The sheep can’t open it but the goats open it with ease. To stay in, they require an additional chain and clasp lock and if it isn’t on just right, they escape.
Today was my turn to feed, water, clean and exercise the animals (that is, I exercise and clean the horse and feed and water the rest). We went to give the goats fresh water and in a flash they opened the gate and rushed out to eat leaves. They group up and run away and resist you too so it can be a struggle to get them back in, and the first ones you catch only want to escape to get back to the leaves and their friends.
I was watching this because I was with my mom who asked me to help her with the gate. I am able to do everything I need to do, more or less, but it felt frustrating today because I saw that I still react so slowly in a moment that required speed. I knew I needed to move fast because she had a goat at the gate and didn’t want to lock up the gate completely since there were more she had to put back in the pen. They struggle to get back to their leaves with great intensity and it is a pain to hold a struggling goat with one hand and fumble with a lock with the other.
Autism is an initiation disorder too. I see where I should go and I stay frozen. Doing new tasks is tough because our bodies need to learn the steps. The steps in this moment would be clear to a neuro-typical body, but not to mine. Though my mind knew what to do, it just wasn’t ready to react in time. This is frustrating personally, but perhaps even worse is that our difficulty initiating certain responses confuses many specialists who then assume we don’t understand logic and basic problem solving.
It isn’t the thinking that’s the problem. It is the ability to react and follow our thoughts that we struggle with. I see my skills have improved, because eventually I got to the gate and held it against goats pushing with all their might to escape again. In the end, we got them all back in. Maybe next time we should let them out on purpose so I can get more practice reacting to emergency situations more quickly.