One foggy morning a few years ago, after I dropped Zach off at his beloved school, I decided to do the coffee shop + laptop thing. I have to admit, I was not in the practice of bringing a laptop to a coffee shop and sipping latte while surfing the internet. “Back in the day,” when I did not know what wi-fi was, I was uncertain how to use it, much less connect to it in Starbucks, where everyone else was in the wi-fi club and I was just the oddball new kid on the block trying to figure out the secret password to get in.
As years went by, I unraveled that magical mystery and did come to understand how wi-fi worked. So on that fog-drenched morning after drop-off, I cruised down Main Street with a little help from my friend Siri, who found me a local coffee shop.
In I strolled, confident in my laptop and my wi-fi skills. I went with an Americano and found a spot near a window. I sipped too much too soon, and unfortunately burned my tongue. Slow down I told myself. School pick-up isn’t for five hours. So I let the scalding coffee be and settled in for some writing.
Feeling “cool,” with visions of becoming that paperback writer I dreamed of, I situated myself and my notebook. I stared. Blankly. At the keyboard. Out the window. At my cup. Okay…I thought…GO! WRITE! DIG IN! Nothing.
I had a scorched tongue and stagnant fingers.
The more I sat there waiting for the Americano to cool, the more negative I became. I finally set aside some time to write, really write, without interruptions…and I couldn’t. I told myself all I need is…time. You can’t force these things. Now and then, pretty much all my life, I’d be flooded with ideas for plots, characters, and book titles. I recorded them in notebooks or on Post-Its, to be revitalized when I had time. So, that day, I had time, and…nothing.
The fog was lifting outside, and I noticed two women wearing workout gear remove their sweatshirts as they took seats on the patio. Fresh air I thought. That’s it! My brain needs fresh oxygen and natural light.
So I picked up everything I had meticulously arranged 15 minutes ago and went outdoors to claim a seat. Good day, sunshine! The warmth on my face was salve to my stymied brain. I felt invigorated.
I’m gonna sit right down and write. Yup. Sit. Write. Start the novel. That’s right…WRITE. OK…GO. I said, GO!
My coffee cooled, I sipped. I checked email. Delete delete delete delete. Sixty four emails in the trash. I swore that yesterday, I deleted the same 64 emails. Unsubscribing from newsletters was on my to-do list, but I never seemed to get around to it.
Suddenly, my eyes were drawn to a few words that disappeared as I hit the delete key. Did that say learned to communicate with a keyboard…?
I retrieved the email from Trash. It described how a young man, roughly Zach’s age, learned to type on a keyboard. He has autism and had been placed in special education classes all his life. His communication was severely limited. He was not able to reveal all his wants, needs, or desires to anyone. How well I knew this young man whom I did not know.
A link was provided to an interview with this young man. I felt drawn – no, compelled – to watch it. Just then, a blackbird landed on the back of the metal chair across from me and cocked its head as if to say, hey Keri, so, what are you waiting for?
One click brought up the interview. There I sat, listening, watching, taking notes, as Jamison Handley and his father J.B. talked about their journey. I found myself nodding in agreement with so much of what they shared. So familiar was their story that I felt as if I was in that studio talking with them.
When they got to the part where Jamison began communicating his thoughts through an alphabet board, I began shedding tears. We had actually tried a similar method years ago, but we abandoned it for a number of reasons. After that attempt, I had embarked on a mission to teach Zach how to type, and he had made tremendous progress with this. He could copy-type virtually anything, and was starting to incorporate punctuation. What I could not seem to do was provide a way for him to go from copy-typing to typing his own thoughts.
As I watched Jamie demonstrate his new-found skill, I leaned forward and held the laptop with both my hands, as if trying to absorb the wonder of this in any way I could. I wanted to jump up and ask the two women across from me if they were hearing this. I had thoughts of driving back to Zach’s school and storming the principal’s office with the good news. Could not every single student there benefit from this method? Could they not all learn to communicate by spelling words, just like Jamie?
With roughly 40% of people with autism having no ability to speak through their mouths, a vast number of children and teens never learn to communicate what’s going on inside. They become adults who are silent, frustrated, overlooked, and segregated from society. People with autism who are nonspeaking DO understand spoken language and CAN comprehend what’s going on around them, but they do not communicate through the spoken word. Thus, they are placed in special education where they remain for most, if not all, of their academic schooling.
Like J.B. Handley’s book title suggests, one has to wonder if we as a planet have Underestimated these individuals…written them off as human beings with little or nothing to offer their families, their communities, their society. If these nonspeaking, wonderful people could communicate through the spelled word, what a difference that would make in their lives!
As I sat in that black metal chair, watching Jamie slowly, intentionally striking keys on a small, hand-held keyboard (which then spoke his typed words), I could not help reflecting on the fact that I went to a coffee shop to type a chapter from a novel I was composing in my head. I had been creating characters with trials and tribulations in my mind for years. Those thoughts were locked in my mind, twisting and shouting within to be let out and formed into something to share. And, there was my son, with 21 years of thoughts and ideas locked in his mind. His trials and tribulations deep inside and never shared in spoken or typed words. How many chapters were sealed in his soul? What trials did he face that I knew nothing about? What knowledge did he possess that he wanted to share but could not?
The sun was now shining directly on my screen. The interviewer asked the crew to put the website up so people could get more information. I could not see it! He said the name so fast I missed it. AAAAAGGGGHHHH! I grabbed the laptop and spun in a circle to get some shade. I could make out spell and communicate and something about ask. The interview ended.
I’ve got to get this into his life! We abandoned that similar method, but this sounded and felt different. I knew in my gut S2C would help Zach. Not only help, but also open doors. Long story short: I found the website, acquired a certified trainer, and we had a phone consult right away. It came together just that fast. I had hoped and prayed for a way to be able to teach Zach that if he could copy-type words, then he could, eventually, independently type the words locked in his mind.
It’s been over two years since we had that consult and began “doing S2C” (which stands for Spelling2Communicate). Some of the work we did with the prior method seemed to jumpstart us, but it was different enough that we started from square one and built up from there. Zach already knew letters and took to the stencil boards immediately. It was (from 2021 til now) a long and winding road. We prioritized Zoom sessions with our practitioner and even drove long distances to meet her in person a few times. She was always willing to help us work it out to meet Zach’s needs.
Fast-forward a bit more. Last week, during our Zoom session, something extraordinary occurred. Our practitioner began a new lesson; it was on The Beatles. We hadn’t ventured into lessons about music before, and we were each a little unsure if the content would be a good fit for Zach. Would he be interested enough to sit through a 60-minute lesson on Ringo, Paul, George, and John? We proceeded.
Right from the get-go, Zach was answering questions. Name one of The Beatles. His spelled answer was STAR RINGO. (Starr does sound more like a first name than a surname!). Where are The Beatles from? LIVERPOOL. What was Beatlemania? BEATLEMANIA MEANT FANS WENT CRAZY ABOUT THE MUSIC. Why did The Beatles stop touring in 1966? BECAUSE OF SCREAMING FANS AND SAFETY. He was interested and “on it.” There was some “pokey-pokey” (as we call it) that results from either hunting for letters with the finger before spotting it with the eyes, or from the hand & finger moving too quickly.
Next, the practitioner asked Zach what genre of music he liked. Now, we have ventured into more open-ended questions that rely solely on his opinion rather than fact, but it’s relatively new for him in terms of our progression through the method. S2C starts out with very concrete, specific questions (and answers) so that the cognitive load stays “low” while the sensory patterns can establish. Slowly and methodically, the student is challenged so that more creative and independent thoughts/answers emerge. Push too rapidly and it may backfire. Don’t push enough and you risk not getting to “the good stuff.”
I L I K E C H R I S T I A N M U S I C.
Actually, as the answer formed, it was more like I C H L O I K E C H R I S T I A M N M U S I C.
Our hearts melted. We have vastly opposite musical preferences in our household. From Air Supply to Aerosmith…Beach Boys to Beastie Boys…Eagles to Pantera…Zach has heard a lot! But a love for Christian music is something my husband and I share. To know Zach likes it too just warmed our hearts. Our practitioner, my husband, and I smiled and commented on how wonderful that was to know.
A few more fact-based questions were asked, and then our practitioner said “I have another open-ended question for Zach. Is that okay?” We assured her it was. We had been practicing them. “Zach, you learned that fans were extremely passionate about The Beatles. And they still are! What is it YOU are passionate about?”
I figured he understood the definition of passionate. He was really good with questions surrounding the meaning of words. I wasn’t sure, though, that he had connected the concept of being passionate about something with his own likes.
He paused. Usually, when he’s ready to spell something, he gives a slight nod. But there was no nod. He stared straight ahead. He was thinking.
No need for an immediate response, so we gave him time. We learned long ago that a constant repeating of a question or a statement is not only unnecessary; it is disruptive to the thought process. People with autism aren’t in need of questions repeated multiple times in order to procure an answer. It is our impatience or misunderstanding that generates a supposed need for reiteration.
Zach was still as a statue. He did not nod. He did not lift his hand nor ready his index finger. Then, his left foot began tapping. His eyes focused the board. He had his response. With his trademark subtle nod, the letter board was lowered toward his knee.
Just as I saw Jamie do with his board during the interview, Zach located each letter he wanted and poked with perfect accuracy. His eyes moved in smooth coordination with his right hand as it glided with keen purpose around the board. The index finger tapped letters with precise selection, graceful and on-the-mark.
I A M P A S S I O N A T E A B O U T J E S U S
He paused, touched the white dot, and returned his hand to his lap. Could there have been a more sublime response? It was resplendent.
It was silent, and I looked at his profile. The rim of his gray hoodie touched his temple and arced around his delicate cheekbone. A dimple emerged, and he lifted his face and turned toward me. A smile formed, soft and peaceful. I smiled back. The moment just sort of hung in the air. Then he leaned over and placed a kiss on my forehead.
If people’s minds take Polaroid pictures, then this one was added to my inner collection. It was beautiful how this moment had come together. There are moments I’ll remember all my life…like this one.
I wasn’t meant to write chapter one of my novel that day. There was a new chapter to be written though — in Zach’s life. There was a story to hear, a connection to be made, and a new journey to begin. A remarkable one. Imagine. Twenty one years of not being able to fully share. Twenty one years of being underestimated. Twenty one years of thoughts, opinions, and preferences never being fully known. And then twenty six letters on a stencil board changed all of that.
I feel that ice slowly melting for him. By the look on his face, he feels it too. In some ways, we have endured a long, cold, lonely winter. In my heart and through my eyes, I say to him little darling, here comes the sun, here comes the sun, and I say, it’s alright…