On Communication

I’m halfway through a long-term substitute teaching job with the special-needs kids, and it’s gotten me to thinking about communication. Specifically, how can you communicate with these students when half are confined to wheelchairs and most are non-verbal?

I was discussing this recently with a friend, and she suggested pictures. That’s an obvious solution, but there are several complications. First, any communication method must be consistent with what they use at home. Second, some don’t even have the muscle control to point to a picture. In addition, one student is blind (although he does talk).

But the saving grace is by spending enough time with a child, a method of communication does develop, be it a sound, an expression, or a gesture. (With one student, it’s eye blinks.) Eventually, you begin to understand what they need, and most of them certainly understand what you want them to do.

And these kids do have a way of surprising you. One student of Asian ancestry is very vocal; he’s good at reading and goes to math class, so communicating with him is no problem. Nevertheless, I was surprised to hear him break into song…in Chinese. I also heard a teacher describing how she thought one of her students was non-verbal until she heard him speaking French. Apparently no one told her he can talk, he just doesn’t know English.

Speaking of non-verbal communication, one of the aides is a gentleman farmer who visits his barn every morning before school to check on his menagerie. (This is especially important now because he has baby goats.) Making the rounds this morning, he saw something unfamiliar: “That doesn’t look like my cat!” He decided to investigate.

No, it wasn’t his cat. In fact, it wasn’t a cat at all, it was a skunk! He beat his retreat so quickly he slipped and fell into a mud puddle. He had to take a second shower and was almost late for school.

On this job, it’s never a dull moment with either the students or the staff!

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