Updated: Mar 16, 2020
Meaghan Buckley was one of my first study subjects, and is my muse in all things autistic. Meaghan prepared for her presentation at a college in Wellesley, MA by posing and answering questions that are frequently asked. [Some very minor editing was done on punctuation and capitalization.]
Why did FC work for you?
It worked because I could express my own thoughts. All other forms of aac only offer picture choices which are ok for wants and needs but don't allow for individual expression. What you need to understand is that our brains are chock full of language. We just can't express it verbally. But in my case, all the words I hear are transformed into written language in my brain. And for the first few decades of my life I had no outlet for it. Everyone was trying to get me to talk. They didn't understand that for me typing is a lot easier than talking. I tried to do rewriting words in my head but that didn't work. So I went on with my life and really felt awful. You cant know how terrible it feels to have so much language trapped in your brain and be unable to get it out. Saying someone is unable to type is an awful thing to do especially when you link it to cognitive ability. That just shows how little people understand about autism. It is a sensory motor disorder. Our minds operate fine, if a bit differently than yours. But our bodies do not listen to our minds. This has implications both for spoken and typed language. Really hard to say what you want to say when the motor feedback to your mouth is scrambled. I think one thing but the words I utter say another. Do you know how frustrating that is? And the more frustrated I get, the more scrambled my nervous system becomes so I just start repeating the same nonsense over and over.
How does typing help you control your language output?
It is easier from a motor planning standpoint. But motor impulsivity still gets in the way, which is why physical restraint of the typing hand is so important in the beginning. It slows everything down so our thoughts are able to get out. I think everyone with autism should have a chance to type with however much assistance they need. Really important to understand that we may take a long time to get our words out even with typing. Sometimes we hit the key right next to the one we want. To an uneducated observer it might appear that we don't know what we are doing, but that is not the case. It has more to do with our impulsivity and lousy hand eye motor coordination.
When they do speech evaluations of autistic kids, they always ask them to point to various named pictures on a page. Do you think this is a good measure of autistic receptive language?
No. That is fine for neurotypical kids, but our pointing is not always reliable. We tend to focus narrowly on the first thing that catches our eye and of course our impulsivity doesn't help either.
What would you recommend as the most important skills teachers or therapists should work on with autistic individuals to enhance their communication abilities?
I think that first and foremost we should be exposed to the alphabet letters on a large keyboard. Next, we need to connect words to the letters. I would suggest using real objects or picture cards. Ask the child what it is. Pay attention to what letters she points to. They might seem random but mixed in with them might be the letters of the word. Really important to take your time and simplify things as much as possible at the beginning. Perhaps start with a single row of the keyboard when they are first typing letters and words without support. Some of the things mom did with me really helped like adding pictures above the letters to help differentiate them and making small letter flip cards to help familiarize me with all the keys on the keyboard. I would never have mastered independent typing if my mother had not slaved over me, teaching me new skills one step at a time.
So what are your final thoughts about FC as a communicative method for people with autism?
I think it is a good start but it has limitations. First off, nobody likes it so few places will allow it. Second, there is not enough emphasis on methods of weaning support. And third, it is very difficult to transition skills from one setting to another. I knew right from the start that I wanted to become an independent typer because I recognized the limitations of FC. If I can leave you with one thought it is this - five years ago an OT therapist took a chance on me exposing me to the iPad keyboard while slightly supporting my wrist. Had she not done that I wouldn't have the opportunities I do today. How many are still out there waiting for their chance?