I served for fifteen years as a speech-language pathologist in the public schools where I learned the importance of accurate and sensitive assessment of culturally and linguistically diverse communication. But for my Ph.D. dissertation at Claremont Graduate University, I went into the homes of seven children who do not speak. Some of the children had been diagnosed with autism, others with cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, muscular dystrophy and developmental delays. In the homes, I observed the everyday interactions between family members and the children and interviewed the parents.
What I found startled me.
One, I found that what the parents wanted for their non-verbal children was often very different than what educators worked on during the day. Parents wanted their children to initiate communication. Educators wanted the children to respond to communication. Parents were focused on the children's emerging sense of self while educators were still back on identifying simple wants and needs. More than anything, parents wanted their children to develop relationships with others while educators wanted the children to sit quietly and follow directions.
Second, I found that parents revealed a wealth of nonverbal communication in everyday routines--communication I had not recognized and did not know how to interpret. The parents' experiences as communication partners with their children encompassed multiple times, places, and activities. I constructed this new assessment instrument to provide descriptions of these vital nonverbal everyday messages.
In focus groups that followed, I discovered parents were usually better observers and describers of the children's communication than most educators and speech-language pathologists. I became convinced we needed this new means of assessment to get at the day-to-day functions of communication. By parents, educators and speech-language pathologists collaborating around this assessment, they can build on the children's most spontaneous initiations and responses. This dialogue creates the much-needed foundation for teaching, augmenting, and using alternative communication at school and at home.