My Daughter is Learning to Talk

It’s hard to remember why the scene I’m about to describe was a shock. This kind of scene has become a near daily occurrence in just five weeks time. But on August 6th of 2014, it was a total surprise to me: Fiona used her talker intentionally for the first time.

Up until this day, Fiona only “babbled” on her talker—an iPad in a strawberry red Gripcase, loaded with a communication app called Speak For Yourself. (For my first post on this venture, see here.) She swiped at the iPad screen (and still often does) seemingly randomly with her entire hand. The screen of this app features 100-some words on tiny targets, and Fiona’s hand was just colliding into them like a bowling ball collides into pins. This repeated gesture creates strings of odd found poetry in the app’s computerized voice: Us cheese away here walk thing ride mom if we stop stop potato.

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(For those of you who know about these sorts of things, yes, we tried a keyguard. The profile was too high with the Gripcase, and it made the targets too inaccessible. We have a new keyguard now, and will be trying it soon.)

This “babbling” was not without purpose. We were giving Fiona time to explore the app, to let accidental utterances become purposeful, just as a baby gets to do with her coos and dahs and boos. Fiona’s mouth does not utter sounds other than uh and mm and hah, so “babbling” on the app gives her the opportunity to explore sounds and words just like a typical child would. It also makes for some hilariously nonsensical utterances in rapid-fire electro-voice: Play he silly no down again which dad poop no farmer’s market.

To supplement “babbling,” we used the talker a lot to model speech. As I spoke to Fiona throughout the day, I would use the talker too. “Do you want to go for a walk?” I’d ask, and then hit “you,” “go,” and “walk” on the talker. “Dad’s home!” I’d say when I heard the door swing open, and then I’d hit “dad” and “home.” Some days, too tired with juggling the therapists and insurance companies and specialists and domestic chores and my own work, not to mention another kid, I didn’t model at all. Other days, I modeled for ten or twenty minute stretches at a time. With our AAC consultant’s guidance, I dropped any expectation that Fiona would use the talker to express anything intentionally for at least a year. The theory is: a newborn needs a year of language before she starts producing a word, so you should give a child a year of exposure to a communication system before you expect her to use it to intentionally herself. Here’s another tidbit I learned (although now I can’t find the original source): a baby needs exposure to a word at least 100 times before she understands it, so learning a new word on an app requires at least that number of repetitions. In other words: model, model, model. Expose the child to the app’s language. And back off the expectations. The latter saved my sanity, especially because Fiona’s fine motor skills don’t yet match the tiny targets of the app.

But one day, sitting at her highchair, my daughter pointed to a tablet on which she watches kids’ videos. The videos are called Super Simple Songs—cartoons paired with classic kid tunes like Itsy Bitsy Spider and Old MacDonald.

“No shows right now,” I said to Fiona. “Eat your cheese.” I pushed a button on the talker. “Eat,” it said. I pushed another. “Cheese,” it said. I pressed the whole phrase. “Eat cheese.” I walked into the kitchen to start dinner.

With my back turned, I heard a number of words: Off some every eat the away computer. And then, floating over the dining room table in a beautiful, electronic voice, I heard the phrase: Super Simple Songs. I turned around. My girl’s blue eyes were beaming. Her mouth opened into a smile, exposing her widely-spaced little teeth.

Holy shit. She’d just spoken her first phrase. Not an approximation. Not um for water, not om for mom. Not ph, for up. She said a whole, audible, intelligible phrase, powerful and purposeful. She wanted her Super Simple Songs. I walked back to the dining room table, opened the tablet, and hit play on the screen.

I’m a chronic skeptic. Maybe it was accidental, I thought.

“If it was accidental,” a Speech Language Pathologist told me, “it won’t be next time.”

I let time pass. I kept modeling. I kept letting her babble strange poetry. Put more in because be where little rainy. But the therapist was right. Fiona started hitting Super Simple Songs on her own.

I also shared this video with the Speak For Yourself User’s Group on Facebook. (Here, you’ll see me using a picture book to model how to find animals on the talker.) Folks in the user group wisely told me to mask more of the words, giving Fiona more space to hit the most meaningful and high-preference targets.

I cut down the vocabulary on the main screen by two-thirds. Fiona’s seemingly purposeful use of the app started happening more and more frequently.

The screen of television shows. Fiona's thumb is headed for "Super Simple Songs."

The screen of video options. Fiona’s thumb is headed for “Super Simple Songs.”

Smiling when she hits "Super Simple Songs."

Smiling when she hits “Super Simple Songs.” She’s sick here, so her eyes are puffy.

In fact, it started happening so often that I’ve lost track of how we got to a day like today.

 *

Petra is playing with a ball on the floor. Fiona’s on the couch with me. I hit “ball” on the talker. I ask Fiona, “Do you want to play with Petra?” I hit “play” and “with” and “Petra.”

She shakes her head, starts jabbing her thumb at the screen.

It takes her sometimes ten hits to get the word she wants, to touch her thumb just-so on the app that the iPad responds. But she is determined. “Cathy,” the talker finally says. Cathy is a friend of ours, and Fiona adores her. They haven’t seen each other in a week.

“You want to play with Cathy?” I ask.

She nods furiously.

I have to tell Fiona that Cathy is out of town.

 *

Fiona is sick with a cold, so I’m letting her watch Yo Gabba Gabba. She’s standing, holding onto the sofa, watching the laptop, which is also on the sofa. She’s usually entranced by this show, but she’s losing interest. She looks over to the coffee table and sees the talker. She cruises to it, grabs a handle on the case, pulls it off the table, and sits down with it. She jabs her thumb at a number of words.

“What do you want? Do you want a different show?” I ask.

She nods. She touches her head: that’s roughly the ASL sign for “hi,” which is the first word the host signs in the TV show, “Signing Time.”

I lean over her talker to show her how to find the show she wants. But then I see the stream of words she’d hit, sitting at the top of the screen. “Signing Time” is among them.  I just hadn’t heard her.

*

I’m rolling a big, bouncy ball back and forth with Petra. “Do you want to play with us, Fiona?” I hit “play” and “with” on the talker.

She doesn’t respond.

“You just want to watch,” I say. I hit “you” and “watch.”

She finds “wheelchair” on the talker and says it twice.

“Wheelchair?” Why would she want her wheelchair? I figure it’s a random utterance. And then I recall a scene from yesterday: she visited her new preschool for the first time, and she and her new aid spent several minutes playing with a big, bouncy ball. Fiona was sitting in her wheelchair. The aid tossed the ball into Fiona’s lap. Fiona giggled and tried to catch it. When the ball bounced off Fiona and onto the floor, she squealed with delight. It was her highlight of the school visit.

I roll the wheelchair out of the closet. I buckle Fiona into the seat. I toss the ball to her, and she smiles. It bounces off her and she watches it bounce away. She squeals. After two failed attempts, she starts catching the ball with both hands.

*

I could tell you more. These are just the moments I remembered, all from today. And these moments are glimmers amidst regular streams of weird found poetry. Just now: Again again good again again Cathy turn in walk. She’s still doing a lot of random swiping and exploring. But lately, the moments of intentional communication have become not-quite-but-almost ordinary. So not-quite-but-almost-ordinary, in fact, that I had to stop myself today, pinch myself today, say, “Holy shit. Look at what we’ve done.”

Successfully hitting "Talker."

Successfully hitting “Talker.”

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15 thoughts on “My Daughter is Learning to Talk

  1. I can only imagine how utterly thrilling this is for all of you! Here’s to steady progress and a lifetime of words and communication!

  2. This is so awesome! Congrats to you and her!

    I never used to understand really about AAC babbling and non-purposeful hits becoming purposeful until my own niece was old enough to start verbally babbling things. Suddenly whenever we’re all at Mum and Dad’s for pizza night the (able-bodied as far as we know) toddler says a sort of “eee-aaa” sound, which I’m 99% sure was random as it was embodied in ten minutes of other vowel sounds, and all six adults in the room stopped what they were doing and clapped and cheered and said “Yes, pizza! That’s right! Here’s some more pizza for you!” and gave her more pizza. Suddenly I realised how MUCH feedback “normal” kids get for their apparently-purposeless babbling and how much shaping and positive feedback we do for every utterance that has even a tiny chance of being purposeful … somehow because it was “ordinary” I’d never even noticed it happening before that moment. It really changed the way I thought about early AAC usage!

  3. Congratulations mom and dad! Your patience and hard work has come to fruition. And Fiona…oh my, all that I see in your eyes has finally found a way to bloom and grow. Keep on keeping on! It is such a pleasure to be able to share in the highlights, both positive and not so, in your family’s magical epic journey.

  4. Pingback: Fiona is Learning to Communicate | ATMac

  5. Dear Heather and Fiona,
    We are so moved by this piece, and so flattered that Fiona’s first words were asking for us by name. What an incredible family moment, and one of the biggest compliments we’ve ever received. Thank you for sharing this story.
    Heather, your writing is beautiful. We love how you carry the reader with you on this journey. We look forward to reading more.
    Best,
    Sara
    Super Simple Songs

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