By Kevin Custer (originally published in the April 2019 issue of AC&E)
Think about your everyday communication, from those you speak to in person or on the phone, to those you text, e-mail, or interact with on social media. Now, imagine that your phone or computer is taken away, and you can only communicate with the people in the room with you. If you’re like most people, this idea probably makes you very uncomfortable—and shows how important the ability to communicate beyond four walls is to our life.
However, this is the reality non-verbal students using AAC face, even in integrated classrooms. Though they are in the room, they can still be in something of a shell and not fully interacting.—physical presence is not enough if there’s no associated communication. This is why, for non-verbal students, it’s critical to move beyond physical presence, and beyond communication that’s confined to those in the room.
Two pieces of science help us to connect the dots
First, the human brain is wired for social inclusion. Studies have confirmed what we know intuitively: those who are more social have longer, happier lives. Second, the two key factors that drive childhood brain development—the number of words in a child’s vocabulary, and the number of conversational turns (that is, back-and-forth) that a child experiences— both predict higher IQ and success in life. For instance, a spoken vocabulary of 2,500 words by kindergarten is a key predictor for reading by third grade, an achievement that correlates with being four times more likely to graduate from high school.
And yet, while the typical child has a spoken vocabulary of about 2,600 words by age five, non-verbal children might have 20 words. That grows to 50,000 for a typical high school student, while non-verbal students might master 500 core words. It’s not hard to see that they aren’t being set up for success. What’s more, those 500 words often fall into the receptive side of language—asking for things—rather than the expressive or conversational language that’s built in every conversational turn.
This limited language experience often mirrors a constricted social network. In elementary school, kids socially interact with 50-100 people, which expands to a peak of about 200 in middle and high school. But for non-verbal children, their network is often only three to maybe eight people, topping out at perhaps 20 by high school. The fundamental drivers of a thriving social network—interaction, vocabulary development, and conversational turns—are simply often not provided to non-verbal kids, even as they are increasingly included in “typical” classrooms.
So what is the solution to achieving social inclusion?
It’s clear that texting and social media have become second nature for young people today. Figuring out how to use those for non-verbal kids is yielding progress. Consider the story of Brian, a non-verbal boy whose social network consisted of his parents and grandparents. He started playing soccer, but when the games ended, Brian was excluded while his teammates excitedly spoke with one another—not maliciously, but because they didn’t know how to communicate with him. He got an App called Tippy Talk, that enables non-verbal people to use pictures to send text messages directly to the phones of caregivers, family, and friends, Brian began to text his teammates during the week, and the boys started to understand that even though Brian couldn’t talk, he could still understand them. Within a few games, Brian was truly included by his new friends in the post-game conversations.
Being on the field was not enough, but once he was able to connect with his teammates when they weren’t on the field, Brian’s life was changed and his social network was expanded. The same is true for all non-verbal students—inclusion only comes when they can communicate fully beyond four walls.
Kevin Custer is Founding Principal of Arc Capital Development, an early stage venture firm for education and special needs markets. Arc has invested in 30 companies that provide products and technology for educators and people with special needs or autism. His companies have product in more than half of the K-12 schools in the North America. He has served on the national board for Autism Society of America and for over fifteen years as a volunteer ski instructor for the National Sports Center for the Disabled.