Monthly Archives: March 2016

Tips for Teachers Integrating a Nonverbal Student with Autism into their Class

My tenth grade English teacher, Amber Tesh, had never had a nonverbal, non-writing student in her class before. She said, in her speech at the Spectrum of Opportunity conference at Cal Lutheran University, that she already had more kids than she was supposed to have in her Honors English class when she was approached by a counselor asking if she could take on another student. “He’s really intelligent,” she told her, “Oh, and he has nonverbal autism and he communicates by pointing to letters.”

I had a great experience in her class because she connected directly to me, not my aide (called a BI,  behavioral interventionist, in her answers). Before she spoke on the educators panel at the Cal Lutheran conference she was asked to address the following questions and these are the answers she wrote out. I hope that her suggestions help other educators of neurotypical students who might be surprised to find themselves suddenly  dealing with something unfamiliar so that it can be a positive experience for everyone..

Below are the suggestions of Mrs. Tesh.

1.  What has worked?  What have you learned?

  • Speak to your class beforehand if possible. Ask the student (which I did with Ido) if he was okay with me talking to the class about why he typed and why he needed to communicate in that way. I think if we hide the obvious, the class becomes left out or confused, which in turn causes chaos. 
  • Relinquish control to the BI. Allow them to handle issues that might arise. Give them the control to excuse the student or step outside. Try not to step in or interfere with their job – even if you think “they CAN’T leave now!!!”
  • Form a relationship with the student and BI. It’s hard to wait for a student to type out an answer, especially if the entire class is eager to respond or are calling out. Have a special signal or gesture so that the teacher knows when the student is typing out an answer. Make it clear to the class if the wait is a bit longer than expected – I would often say, “I am waiting for Ido on this one” and the class just stopped and waited. 
  • Seat the student by the door if they need to step out or take a break. 
  • For the first few group activities (if you do group activities) – the teacher should form the groups. When students form groups they pair up with who they know and where they feel comfortable. Students get very uncomfortable quickly when they don’t know how to act in a certain situation or with a certain person. For many students in your class, this might be the first time they have been in a class with someone with autism or someone who types. Their first reaction is going to be to group up with friends, and then students get left out. Once students realize how smart and communicative the student is, they are eager to form groups. This happened with Ido. After a few weeks, I had people asking him to join their group. 
  • Allow the student to finish things at home. Certain things are just too hard to get done in a class period. 
  • Ask the student “enough” questions to ensure they got it. Then you will feel okay with them finishing at home.  

2.  What supports do YOU need/find helpful/valuable to YOUR success?

  • A good BI
  • A place for them to go to work if it’s not the best day or need extra time
  • A strong support system at home
  • A strong counseling staff that places the student where he/she would be most successful
  • Information about previous classes – what worked and what didn’t?
  • Advice on how to give / space out / time assignments (might come from IEP, counselor, BI, inclusion specialist)

3.  What advice do you have for other teachers? students? administrators?

  • Teachers – #1 is giving it a chance. As teachers we tend to be scared or thrown off by the unexpected or what we don’t know – and to be honest, having a student who types to communicate is a bit unexpected and scary. If we are nervous about something before we even try it, we tend not to do the best job. So, if teachers just give it a chance it’s actually just everyday business.
  • Teachers – As said in question #1 – talk to your students. There is no point in hiding the obvious. It might not be the most comfortable conversation, but they have to be able to recognize and accept differences.
  • Teachers – Make sure you feel comfortable that the student is actually doing the work. My biggest challenge was “Is Ido actually doing this writing / work”?  I mean you have this young man, who at first didn’t participate at all and would often times have to step out of class for long periods of time – and then he would turn in this work that even my brightest honors kids couldn’t do. So you have to come to a confident place that they are listening to you and completing the work on their own – even if someone else might be writing it down for them.  *Ido note: This is handled by observing the student communicating, typing and answering questions. It also becomes clear by relating directly to the student in conversation and questions and answers, but at first it is a novel experience for the teacher and seeing that the student is communicating is essential for teacher confidence.
  • Administrators – need to talk to their teachers. Ask them which class would be the best for the student. Lets be honest, as teachers there are just certain classes that are better or more “equipped” then others. 



Words from the Parent Panel at Spectrum of Opportunity Conference

Here is another speech from the Spectrum of Opportunity conference at Cal Lutheran University. This is a speech from the parent panel. My good friend’s mother, Barbara Johnson, had the courage to tell her story. Her son was with me in remedial autism class when we were small and no one knew how much was inside. I am happy to say he is at last able to express his thoughts. His story tells parents to not give up, even if your kid has grown to adulthood.

Good afternoon.  My name is Barbara Johnson and I have the
privilege of being the mother of two sons, Chad and Connor Johnson,
both of whom have autism.  My son, Chad, is the focus of my speaking
today however, because he is typing with a keyboard and his IPad
utilizing the Proloquo voice feedback word program for communication
and academics.

I was asked to speak today because Chad basically started typing
meaningful communication and academics at 18 years old. He is now
20.  Chad did began typing earlier with me and with his home therapy
program provided by Verdugo Hills Autism Project using an Alpha
Smart keyboard,  but most of the typing consisted of nouns– usually
what we were having for dinner, or his name, address and phone
number.  He did not progress much from there, because looking back
now I believe we were not emphasizing the typing enough.

Chad had been using PECS most of his time at home and in
school because it seemed to be the only form of communication other
than verbal that appeared to connect with him and what he also
initiated with.  He tried typing and sign language when he was very
young, but these forms of communication at the time did not seem to
register well.  I truly believed they did not make sense to him.

I was informed by the experts, that Chad had severe receptive language
difficulties and that was the reason why he would not always respond
correctly to ABA drills or requests I made of him.  The many books
and articles I researched only backed up this theory.  It was described
to me with the analogy of a radio receiving static, sometimes the
message comes through, and sometimes it doesn’t.  I have never
doubted Chad’s intelligence, and I have always known he is extremely

If only I had realized Chad’s body was not responding to what his
brain was telling him to do, this theory of receptive language problems
would not have shaped how I pursued his education and therapy.
What is so ironic and upsetting is that a great deal of Chad’s learning
had been and continues to be auditory; he has understood everything
all along.  The experts were wrong, I was wrong.

I have dear friends in Tami Barmache and Tracy Kedar who
encouraged me to pursue the typing communication with Chad.  I still
had my doubts because of past experience, but I started to inquire
more.  The pivotal moment for me that changed my perspective was
speaking directly with Ido Kedar.  Chad and Ido have been friends
since they were about 6 years old. They both met in an autism class in
elementary school.   I was talking and crying to Tami and Tracy about
pursuing the typing and I was feeling like I had failed Chad and had him
on the wrong path for years.  Ido approached and typed on a letter
board to me that I was a very good mother to Chad and I had been
given the wrong information, that is was not my fault.  Well, I totally
broke down after that, but it changed things forever for me and for

The meaningful typing initially started at school with the assistance
of Verdugo Hill’s BID, Cheryl Umali and BII, Jim Rodehaver.  Chad
has used the letter board and IPad, but he prefers the IPad because
he can see what he is typing and can also utilize the word bank.  He
required a great deal of support in the beginning, but over time the
support has greatly diminished. Tracy Kedar also worked with Chad using the letter board to teach him to point independently without being touched.  This helped Chad have more ease with the keyboard with less support.  Chad also
receives communication therapy once a week through REACH with
Katie Anawalt and Lindsey Goodrich.

For the first time Chad is fully included in general education in high school.  He is on an alternate curriculum. However, so far he has not had modifications in the academics, only accommodations for his typing and additional time requirements.

Chad was previously in the autism class for almost his entire
education, mainstreaming only for electives or going to a vocational
campus for a job skills program for a couple of periods during the day.
Ever since Chad started the academic general education curriculum
this last August, his writing has greatly improved surprising everyone
around him.

I have tried to encourage other parents to investigate typing for their
children because it has been life changing for our family.  For the first
time, my husband Chris and I are hearing Chad’s voice and his
opinions.  We do not have to guess anymore what he wants, we can
ask him and he can reply.  Many parents have conveyed to me that
Chad, Ido and Dillan are exceptional and their child cannot do the
same.  Every child with autism is exceptional because they are the
bravest souls I have ever met, but Chad, Ido and Dillan are no
different from your children, students, or clients.  Other people with
autism can also be successful using typing communication; they just
have to be exposed to the same opportunities. Most of all, you have to
believe in their intelligence, perceptiveness, understanding of
language, concepts, and emotions. Do not let their physicality get in
the way of you believing in them.

In closing I am going to read something Chad wrote in his government
class that I believe says it all.

A cause that is very important that I think of is the rights of people
without voices.  I have autism and I don’t talk.  That makes it hard for
people to know I can think and learn.  So I and other do not get true
education.  We cannot help ourselves to speak up.  But we
deserve a fair chance to learn real knowledge.

Words from a College Student with Autism

My good friend, Samuel Capozzi, wrote this fine and informative speech for the all-day conference on nonverbal autism held at California Lutheran University last weekend. I am delighted to share his powerful message.

Samuel gradI once read that “God often uses our deepest pain as the launching pad of our greatest calling.” I believe this is true in my young life. Good morning, my name is Samuel Capozzi, and I’m a freshman at Cal State Channel Islands
in Camarillo. I am also pleased to be on the board of Autism Society, Ventura County. I have a diagnosis of moderate autism, and I’m considered non-speaking and non-writing. I only began typing to communicate about four years ago. A lot has happened in that short span! As a matter of fact, my entire life changed.

My communication breakthrough happened in the middle of high school. At that time, I was unable to expressively communicate all that I was taking in, all that I learned, and all that I hoped to achieve. I was reading Dick and Jane readers and doing double digit addition at 16 years old. This was a dark, dark time for me. After more than sixteen years of silence, I felt like I might never be heard, like I might never be understood, and like I might be treated as a toddler
for the rest of my life. To say that my hope was realized in May of 2012 would be a huge understatement!

I think it’s important to know that I didn’t suddenly learn everything with RPM, I was learning all along. I’m thankful my mom read to me at higher levels and showed me educational videos. I also did a lot of incidental learning. It’s a very hard thing to be deprived of rich, age-level learning experiences—experiences most people take for granted.

Life changed when my faithful parents took me to Austin, Texas to learn RPM—the method I use to communicate. Needless to say, many tears were shed in the Capozzi home upon the realization that not only do I understand what is being said, but that I also have excellent reasoning skills and a keen sense of humor!

I decided to stay an extra year in high school to earn a diploma and to become a college-bound student. With hard work and many sacrifices by my loved ones and me, I did it! My favorite class was Latin, and I enjoyed taking the National Latin Exam. I managed to score Maxima Cum Laude two years in a row. My school challenged the students to “Do Hard Things”, so I did, but not only for myself. You see, I understand that my success is my misunderstood and marginalized peers’ success as well.

My remaining high school years were jam-packed with academics which I thrived on! I was even my Mock Trial team’s journalist. It was a whirlwind of an experience, as I responded unusually quick to learning RPM. My high school counselor and teachers were extremely excited about and supportive of my new found means of communication. This was so important as I ‘spread my wings’ in my new world of communication, conversation, and academics. My Latin teacher
took a real interest in my journey, and this made me feel so supported and encouraged. She even read Ido’s book out loud to her family! Just one teacher can make a big difference.

By God’s grace and pure grit, I graduated with honors and managed to take the SAT. Not only was arranging for the necessary accommodations difficult and time-consuming, but I also sat for the test for over 6 hours! So did my friend, Ido. Nonetheless, I am thankful the College Board was willing to work with us on this because I know it will benefit others who face complex communication challenges in the future, and hopefully some of you here today!

As our understanding of autism evolves and increases, I am optimistic that accessing an appropriate education won’t be as challenging for others who communicate differently.

I was accepted at all three universities that I applied to, including Cal Lutheran, and offered scholarships based on academic merit and community service. In the end, I chose Channel Islands because I believe they were the best prepared for a student like me. Go, Dolphins!

Since attending CI, I love learning, walking the halls of a university, and obtaining higher education. As I understand it, I am CI’s first non-speaking, non-writing student. I simply can’t say enough about Disability Resource Programs at CI. I am truly embraced, and my presence is celebrated on campus. It’s a nice change! What inspires me most is my professors’ delighted
responses and even shocked responses when they hear my cogent answers and read my strong essays. I hope to pioneer a path for other students who communicate differently that may come after me. Knowing this helps me forge on when I become overwhelmed!

Life with autism is challenging and difficult in ways most of you could never understand. So, my efforts in high school and now that I’m in college are hopefully not only for my benefit but also for the benefit of my peers and society as a whole.

Autism is now a big part of our society with the prevalence at 1 in 68 births. With what we know, now is the time to re-think autism and give it a new face. Yes, life with autism has caused some of my deepest pain; however, living victoriously with autism is also my greatest calling. I am profoundly grateful to have meaningful communication, and I hope that I have helped some of
you to better understand its importance for everyone.