To break through communication barriers, sometimes we just have to know where to look—and how to listen.
It always comes back to Shrek.
When the green ogre makes it to the page in Liam’s sketchbook, there is a story to tell.
Liam, a student at Crotched Mountain School, has autism and seizure disorder and his communication is limited to an utterance or two, words barely made out. And like anyone—regardless of disability!—a barrier to person-to-person communication can yield immense frustration.
For Kelsey Shannon, a Speech and Language Pathologist at Crotched Mountain School, working with Liam to address his communication needs transcended the simple duties of a daily job; for her, it’s personal. As a big sister to a little brother with autism, she shared in her brother’s unique approach to processing the outside world. This experience hardwired in her DNA a desire to work with people with disabilities and, especially, to help unlock the potential of those on the autism spectrum.
Liam is one of the students she serves and for so long, the key to Liam’s communication challenge had been elusive. Like anyone, he would feel sad, hurt, happy, angry; but without the means to convey these emotions, the angst would boil over and Liam would revert to expression-through-adverse-behavior. Add to this combustible mix the looming shadow of the occasional Grand Mal seizure, and there would be times Liam, overcome, would lash out.
And one day Kelsey went to art class and everything changed.
The Monster and Me
During school, it’s Rory and Liam. Rory is his one-to-one staff, accompanying Liam as he moves throughout his day at Crotched Mountain School. Over the course of six months, the two have forged a connection. Liam knows her, trusts her, likes her. The foundation of the School’s education approach is Gentle Teaching, which is all about building relationships and fostering empathy; it is within these person-to-person dynamics that breakthroughs manifest.
And that’s exactly what happened the day Rory told Kelsey about Shrek.
Over the course of her time with working with Liam, Rory had noticed variations in his sketches. Always one who found Zen with a marker in his hand and a blank sheet of paper laid out before him, Liam would draw constantly, filling his canvases with all manner of pastel oddities.
Eventually, Rory made an incredible discovery: these drawings were connected to what he was feeling. What had at first seemed to be the simple, random scribbling of a teenager, were revealed to be the very vehicle that Liam was using to communicate to anyone who would listen—those pages upon pages of scrawled art were communication logs, Liam’s own Rosetta Stone.
One frequent visitor to Liam’s pages was a monster. The monster would be interacting with a boy, or surrounded by different marks and swirls and colors. Eventually, staff realized it wasn’t just a generic monster—it was Shrek. Rory and Kelsey figured out that Shrek’s illustrated circumstances told the story of Liam’s feelings that day. If there was a blue box around Shrek, Liam was sad. A red box meant he was angry. If there was a picture of a boy hugging Shrek, Liam was happy. And if there was a red line going across Shrek’s forehead, Liam was in pain—and a seizure was on the way.
“The truth is, we don’t know how kids with autism physically perceive pain,” Kelsey says. “Their sensory systems are so different.”
The First Piece of the Puzzle
The cliché is “If you’ve met one person with autism, then you’ve met one person with autism,” but it’s oft-repeated for a reason: it’s 100% true. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to meeting all the needs of everyone with autism; each person requires their own cryptographic sequence. Maybe it’s Shrek. Maybe it’s Tom Servo. But the story is there to be heard.
“Liam has done a lot of the work for us,” Kelsey says. “Now, it comes down to how we take that next step, from drawings on a paper to him being able to tell us ‘my head hurts’ or ‘I need medicine.’ It’s all about smaller victories, especially here.”
There is a way to go before that happens, but one of the biggest puzzle pieces has snapped into place. For Rory and Liam and Kelsey, a new communication expressway has opened up, a thoroughfare marked with potential that hadn’t been there before.
Everyone is, finally, on the same page.