HERNDON, Va. – On a humid morning this past summer, three college-age boys walked to their local river to make mud together for an eco-friendly art project.
Mixing dirt and water using sticks, and pushing a paint roller back and forth in the slimy liquid, they practiced a skill they want to improve: movement. By filling in stencils, the boys transformed their motions into communication, even though they weren't speaking.
Turning physical movements into speech can be an obstacle for people with autism and sensory disorders. These conditions affect coordination and make it hard to perform learned motions – even ones as seemingly small as the movements people need to speak.
Alternative communication methods such as spelling have become everyday aspects of life for students at Growing Kids Therapy Center in suburban Washington, D.C.
“Our population of nonspeaking, unreliably speaking and minimally speaking individuals has at its core a motor-sensory difference,” said Elizabeth Vosseller, executive director of Virginia’s Growing Kids Therapy Center.
“Your mouth is like a limb. Your oral system is like an appendage,” said Dr. Connie Kasari, a UCLA professor in the center for autism research and treatment. “If you’re not very coordinated, it’s going to affect how well you can produce movement, speech being one of those movements.”
Growing Kids Therapy Center's "spell-to-communicate" method is unique because it incorporates movement into nonspeaking communication. Atlanta and South Africa are also hubs for so-called spellers.
Despite its successes among some students, the spelling method needs to go through more testing, Kasari said. Plus, physically spelling words doesn't work for all nonspeaking people.
“We’re looking for more options because there’s so much heterogeneity in autism,” Kasari said.
Autism rates continue to climb:Experts don't exactly know why
The students at Growing Kids fully comprehend conversations going on around them, even though they can't respond via talking, Vosseller said.
Think of it this way, Vosseller said. “If I were to lose my voice and go to full-blown laryngitis, I’m not losing my ability to comprehend, I’m losing my ability to articulate.”