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At-Home Tools for Non-Verbal Kid Communication

Materials needed: simple clip art, paper, printer, folder, Velcro, and a laminator.

Task: Building Maggie’s vocabulary by expanding her P.E.C.S. folder

In the market, there are many high-tech tools to help nonverbal kids talk, especially iPad apps. In education, an iPad encased in a shell and linked to one of these talking apps can be informally called a “talker.” Maggie is not ready for such a device. Her favorite pastime is throwing toys down the stairs to watch them bounce, so anything remotely fragile (and expensive) is not something I’m ready for her to use.

Luckily, low tech strategies work fine for now, especially with her limited vocabulary.

Her at-home P.E.C.S. folder is fairly simple. There are laminated sheets of construction paper with Velcro dot stickers on the pages. Only the first page has any pictures, so far, but additional pages can represent objects organized by topic or a particular room. The first page contains five laminated clip art pictures: a plate, a cup, a kid opening a door, a kid closing a door, and a blank square. Too many pictures at first could be overwhelming, but she’s mastered being able to pull out and hand me the plate picture to mean she’s hungry, or pull out the kid opening the door to mean she wants to leave the room and go elsewhere. The blank box means she wants none of the above.

I don’t want to add too many pictures too fast, but these are the ones I’m going to add to her folder today: a toilet picture (we’re working on potty training), a picture of her bed (to mean she’s tired and wants to go to sleep), a picture of the trampoline (to mean she wants to play outside in the backyard), and a picture of “Ralph” (he’s a Fisher-Price stuffed dog that talks when you press his hands and his feet. He’s Maggie’s favorite toy. His name isn’t really Ralph, but we call him that because when he barks, it sounds like “Ralph! Ralph!”).

I could easily add more. I could create detailed pages, like photographing all of her meals and creating a picture menu for future meal prepping and letting her choose which ones she wants to eat, or photographing the many toys in the kids’ playroom. In time, I will build her folder to include so much more, but for now, less is more. She has just now grasped the idea of “picture exchange,” literally meaning exchanging a picture for what it depicts.

After Maggie’s last meeting with her behavioral therapist and sharing with her the unfortunate incident of Maggie touching the hot stovetop, she suggested using red and green laminated cards to signify whether something is safe to play (green for go) or something is dangerous and should not be touched (red for stop). This is a simple solution that can be practiced using the play kitchen in the playroom. If the red card is up, do not touch. If the green card is up, it’s safe to play. This skill, recognizing the inherent meaning behind red and green can also transfer to other games and skills, like Red-Light/Green-Light.

Much of Maggie’s frustration is her recognizing what she wants and being unable to express it. This leads her to sometimes act out and get upset. I can only compare it to suddenly find yourself in a foreign country unable to understand the language or find means of communication. Simple needs, like needing to use the toilet or finding a drink, can become a game of charades. Maggie doesn’t act out or sign what she needs. Our recourse before would be guessing and offering until she was satisfied or just gave up in frustration. Now, she can hand us a picture of a cup and I can hand her an actual cup with water. She can now express a direct and specific need and have it satiated without a bunch of guesswork.

We have a long way to go in building Maggie’s communication skills, but her having a way to express a basic want or need is huge for her. I’m so proud that she’s mastering this skill.


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