I Need to Play Dumber

Over the summer, Fiona’s talker use has dipped significantly. When my husband or I go to charge her iPad at the end of the day, the battery is at 80-some percent. (During the school year, a day’s use took the battery below the 50% mark.) There are two simple reasons for this: 1.) Fiona has no speech services during the summer; and 2.) I’m not modeling nearly as much.

I say “I” because, even though ideally every adult who works with Fiona should be modeling the talker, I’m the one who’s spending the most time with her right now. I’m not working this summer. But like so many disciplines in the summer—early rising and rigid work schedules and the like—talker time has waned. I’ve gotten lax. Days go by when I hardly say more than 3 sentences with the talker, and I forget the position of words I once knew. Out? Couldn’t find it today. Here? Had no idea.

I console myself by saying, “It’s summer.” I feel better when I remember all the road trips we’ve taken, all the days spent in the sun, which have disrupted our schedule.

[Image description: Fiona sitting on a beach, holding a shovel, smiling. Her legs are covered in sand, and she's wearing a brown straw Fedora hat and a bathing suit.]

[Image description: Fiona sitting on a beach, holding a shovel, smiling. Her legs are covered in sand, and she’s wearing a brown straw Fedora hat and a bathing suit.]

And I pat myself on the back for at least remembering Rule #1 of AAC use: always keep the device on hand. I bring the talker everywhere we go. The hardware store, the grocery store, the park, the bathroom.

Plus, she has been using her talker. She will occasionally assemble telling phrases, such as these:


She wanted oatmeal. She also wanted to go to the zoo and see a baboon. Sure thing, kid. But still, the battery life doesn’t lie. The biggest problem: I haven’t been playing dumb enough. Instead of pretending I don’t know what Fiona wants or needs, I’ve been letting her communicate to me in all the subtle ways she does. My sister once laughed when she watched Fiona and me communicate. She likened it to talking with R2D2.

In the scene from Star Wars, when R2 D2 and C3PO escape to Tatooine:

R2 D2[Heading into an escape pod on a ship:] Beep Bur-Beep.

C3PO: Hey, you’re not permitted in there. It’s restricted. You’ll be deactivated for sure.

R2 D2 [Ignoring his gold friend]: Beep Beep. Murp Meep.

C3PO: Don’t you call me a mindless philosopher, you overweight glob of grease.

[Image description: Photograph of Star Wars characters C3PO and R2 D2, standing together on a spaceship.]

[Image description: Photograph of Star Wars characters C3PO and R2 D2, standing together on a spaceship.]

Fiona squawks, points her hand toward what I’m holding, and I know she wants my phone. So I say no, or yes.

She says “ahm-ahm,” then waves her hand in the air, which I know means “water,” and I get her water.

She cries when I offer her sister a snack cup with crackers, so I say, “You want some crackers, too?” And she nods vigorously and I go get her a snack.

These are the more obvious examples of communication, but in general, I’m fairly in tune with my nonverbal four-year-old. I can read her in ways that I know her teacher come September will not be able to. I’m not doing her a service. I pull the talker toward her only when I’m truly baffled. She has dozens of signs, and they all look vaguely the same (Pray is identical to Book), so when she’s trying to say something and I’m clueless, I pull her talker closer and ask her to tell me what she means.

Guess what: She doesn’t.

She doesn’t elaborate. She doesn’t clarify. She just hits a word at random, or maybe it’s somewhat related, but I have no idea how. “Iguana,” she says. Hmm. No idea, kid.

Dana Nieder at Uncommon Sense is doing a 21-day challenge, encouraging AAC families to boost their modeling use. She’s noticing that when the talker isn’t just in the room but immediately on hand, dangling from her neck, she uses it more, and her kids become more interested in it.

Inspired by this challenge, I brought the talker to the changing table this morning. While Petra woke up in her crib, I changed Fiona, and set the talker against the wall directly to her left. In the mornings, Fiona sometimes says hi to her sister (a word her mouth can make). Other mornings she seems indifferent. But with the talker right beside her, she said excitedly, “Sister. Sister. What’s up? Play.”

The rest of the day, I reminded myself to play dumber. Even when I know what she wants (water, crackers, my phone,) I wait, pretend I’m clueless, make her “talk.” Often, she doesn’t. Because she hasn’t been expected to for weeks. So I then model what I think she wants. I ask with the talker, “Do you want water?” She nods yes, and I say, “Oh, water!” Then I model, “I Want,” and help her find “water,” so she’s now a part of the sentence.

All of this is basic. All of this I was doing during the school year. It’s a simple AAC lesson: Playing dumb is one of the smartest things you can do. Today I’m buckling down again. It’s 6pm and the battery life is at 51%.


3 thoughts on “I Need to Play Dumber

  1. Don’t be too hard on yourself. You have your work cut out for you and probably need a break from it all. I myself plan on being a really dumb surfer in my next life. I will work in a surf shop, smoke a lot of pot and ride the waves.

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