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Speech Pathology Week: Sawyer’s Story

Published 24th August, 2015
At Therapy Focus we currently employ 50 qualified speech pathologists who work closely with people who have a range of disabilities to help them achieve their communication goals. In celebration of Speech Pathology Week, which is held from the 23rd – 29th of August, we invited a family receiving services to share their story. The following is written by Aasta, who is Mum to five year-old Sawyer.

When my daughter Piper was born I didn’t think about speech as a ‘thing’. I talked, she didn’t. I talked, she burbled. I talked, she talked. Simple.  When my son Sawyer was born and diagnosed with a rare chromosome abnormality at six months, I still didn’t think about speech.  We were lucky enough to secure therapy services, including Speech Pathology, almost immediately, though I was still naive enough to think ‘what on earth is a Speech Pathologist going to do with a six month old? He is far too young to learn his ABCs!’ At the time I really had no concept that he would be unable to simply ‘absorb language’ and speak as his sister did. And I had no idea that Speech Pathology would become a lifeline in Sawyer’s communication journey.

Sawyer is now five and a half and I would like to state something that I wish hadn’t taken me so long to learn on this journey: Speech is not language, and speech and language are not communication. It was a long road to that realisation for Sawyer and me. Sawyer’s communication is now truly multi-modal. He gestures, points, intonates, grunts, laughs, signs Auslan, uses a Pragmatic Organisation Dynamic Display (PODD), the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS), and an Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) device called an Accent 1000. Sawyer doesn’t speak. His receptive language skills (his ability to take in language, understand and comprehend) are much stronger than expressive language skills (his ability to convey a message and form language). But so long as the people in his life are aware of all his methods of communication, his communication is rich.

We have been very lucky to have had two amazing speech pathologists from Therapy Focus help Sawyer achieve the level of communication he currently has. When we joined the Therapy Focus team four years ago, Sawyer’s speech pathologist, Jessie Diamond, cleverly taught me to view communication as a holistic process well before she broke the news that it was unlikely that Sawyer would ever speak clearly. And because of the knowledge and tools Jessie provided us with (PECS, PODD, AAC devices, Auslan signing and how to recognise the subtle ways he was communicating) it wasn’t such a crippling blow. Sure, if Sawyer woke up tomorrow talking I would thank every God ever named. But he does communicate, and he does it extremely well!

Sawyer using AAC

Sawyer shows his Speech Pathologist, Elena Petropulos, how he uses AAC.

When Sawyer did start verbalising I took him to a speech pathologist who specialised in PROMPT [an approach that uses touch cues to the jaw, tongue and lips to manually guide targeted words, phrases or sentences] in the hope that she would have a different opinion. But when it became clear that if Sawyer learnt to speak using this intervention his vocabulary would be very unclear and only consist of a few ‘power words’, both Sawyer and I realised he didn’t need unclear words as a social convention. Again, my ever-supportive Therapy Focus speech pathologist was on the same page, and we started heavily pursuing Auslan signing and AAC as Sawyer’s main means of communication with ‘any communication is good communication’ as our underlying mantra.

Jessie sourced AAC devices for Sawyer to trial and helped me find Auslan signing courses. She also provided us with a PODD and numerous push-button devices that said words and sentences to help Sawyer make himself heard. Most important of all, she provided support.  We had home visits, Therapy Focus office visits, day-care visits and plenty of phone calls with endless ideas.  Jessie truly provided me with the strength and advice I needed to navigate this new world where I was required to actively ‘teach’ language and communication. 

Then we had to change speech pathologists. I was so scared. Luckily our new (current) speech pathologist, Elena Petropulos, is just as wonderful, dedicated and supportive. She has continued to actively pursue ways to help Sawyer with his transition into schooling and is an encouraging adviser when I question myself and my abilities to improve Sawyer’s communication. She’s also an understanding ear when I grieve the limitations to the richness of Sawyer’s communication.  She sends me regular emails with words I might add to Sawyer’s AAC/Auslan vocabulary and helps me network with parents of kids with similar communication needs. She provides me with posters, booklets and worksheets that may help Sawyer in communicating with new people, and she liaises with his teachers so that we’re all working towards the same communication goals. She also works on strategies to help hearing/speaking people (as clueless as I used to be) to communicate better with Sawyer!

Without our speech pathologists breaking down the complexities of speech, language and communication into learnable steps I could replicate, I dread to think how I would have helped my son. Without them helping him helping him realise the power of communication and the many different ways of communicating, he wouldn’t have developed into the happy, confident boy he is now.

So where is Sawyer’s communication now? I’m both proud and excited to be witnessing what I believe to be a ‘communication explosion’ in Sawyer at the moment. Recently a child asked me ‘can I have a go on Sawyer’s iPad?’ Sawyer turned to him and signed ‘ask me to share.’ He’d never before spoken up for himself. A COMMUNICATION FIRST! Today at Princess Margaret Hospital he was able to convey to the Orthopaedist that his new casts were causing pain and pointed out where so she could fix it. A COMMUNICATION FIRST! When I picked him up from school not long ago he played a sentence he constructed himself on his AAC device telling me about his day at school which informed me about ‘making dog and cat masks.’ He has never before told me what he did at school. A COMMUNICATION FIRST!

And most importantly to me: Tonight I sat with Sawyer in a restaurant where we had a meal and a conversation.  We talked about the dinner. He asked who was picking him up from school tomorrow. He asked why the plans had changed to collecting his sister from Scouts instead of Grandma. He complained that he wouldn’t get to see Grandma if we picked her up. He told me that he liked the noodles but didn’t like the rice. He shared some fears he has. I asked him about the masks he made at school (the cat one was orange and the dog one was brown and Zac made a kangaroo in case you were wondering). And this was all communicated to me in Auslan signing and gestures. A COMMUNICATION FIRST!
Sawyer is five and a half and this was absolutely the first rich, two-way conversation we have ever had. There are no other words to describe how having a Speech Pathologist has positively impacted our lives: We are so thankful.

For more information about Speech Pathology Week visit the Speech Pathology Australia website at http://www.speechpathologyaustralia.org.au/.

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