Just two small words—one phrase—can say a lot about a kid.
They could be learning how to share a new toy or video game with others. They could be taking turns on the swings at the playground.
But in Lydia Neher’s classroom, “My turn!” is a groundbreaking phrase.
Neher teaches third-, fourth- and fifth-graders in self-contained special education at Cedarmere Elementary School in Reisterstown.
She works with children on the autism spectrum who use assistive technologies, devices that help relatively nonverbal kids communicate.
For her, one student learning to say “My turn!”—she currently has nine students with two other teachers in the classroom—saying “one or two words is just a huge win.”
“It was a huge deal,” she continues. “With a typical kid, you wouldn’t really be so excited about them learning a new word or a new phrase. But with these kids, it’s a quality of life—it’s amazing. It makes a big difference in their day-to-day ability. Just to advocate and say, ‘It’s my turn’ is going to be huge for her.”
In Neher’s third year of teaching, she has used assistive technologies every single day, she says with a grateful sigh of relief. Assistive technology encompasses any equipment or tool that helps kids, particularly kids with special needs, improve certain skills, accomplish tasks or communicate. One obvious example would be a hearing aid.
Both Baltimore City and County public schools have assistive technology offices or teams who work to provide student assessments, teacher training, a lending library and technical support, among other services.
The different technologies depend on the children and what they’re comfortable with, whether that be something like a Vantage or a flipbook.
A Vantage is the typical item one might think of when it comes to communicative devices: “It’s kind of like a clunky box, and then it has a screen that has a bunch of icons and the icons are folders so when you click it there are other pictures you can choose from, and it will say the words and sentences,” Neher explains.
Others use low-tech boards with pictures that they can point to, or a binder with pages of pictures inside.
Assistive technologies can even be found in apps nowadays: One of Neher’s students uses the app LAMP Words for Life, which she says is very user-friendly.
“The way it’s set up is intuitive,” she says. “All the pronouns are on the left and they’re yellow, and on every page you go to they’re in the same place. It’s all about motor planning with that app. Instead of really learning the words, which they are learning, but they’re more learning the motor plans to access the buttons, which is the same way that we communicate. We learned the motor plan to make the noises verbally, so they’re just using their hand.”
When it comes to the disparate levels of curriculum—Neher has one third-grader, five fourth-graders and three fifth-graders—she admits it can be difficult to apply the proper levels of education to the varying ages.
“The range of ability is so big,” she says. “I have kids who you would think, ‘He could be totally included in [with the general education students] with just a little support,’ and then some who need a lot of support.
“We in Baltimore County really feel like the students have the right to access the same curriculum their gen ed peers are using,” she continues. “Obviously, they’re not learning it at the same level, but I take curriculum and I adapt it. I’ll use text with pictures, I’ll abbreviate some of it, I’ll use simpler terms and I’ll rewrite the text. And then it’s tricky because when you want to do things in a whole group you’re teaching fifth-graders third-grade material, so I try to align the curriculums.
“It works really well for math—harder for reading—but it works,” she laughs.
And teaching this way has certainly opened her eyes to education.
For the first two years, Neher was a part of a grant that taught her and other teachers how to use assistive technologies and communicative boards.
“It definitely opened my eyes to what it’s like to communicate in that way because it’s definitely harder than just speaking. We take that for granted. We can say whatever we want — it’s easy and it comes right out. But they can’t,” she says. “So with this grant, the goal is to teach these kids who don’t communicate verbally in the way that people naturally acquire language, which is observing other people.”
Turns out, observing others goes both ways.
One day, she asked a student to find India on a world map. Neher thought she’d have to step in and help.
“She pointed right at India and gave me a look like, ‘You seriously didn’t think I knew where India was?’” she chuckled. “She went back to her seat like it was nothing. We were all just in shock because she barely communicated verbally or on a device.
“It reminds you that there’s so much going on in there. They’re thinking and thinking all the time. It just isn’t always coming out.”
Although she is still learning from her students, disabilities are nothing new for Neher.
Her sister is intellectually disabled, and “I’ve always kind of lived with this realm of disability.”
“I think I’m more understanding of the families because I had this family experience. I can see what the families are going through better than other teachers, so I feel lucky to have that.”