For many people on the autism spectrum, even the most basic daily tasks like staying focused and communicating essential needs, cannot be taken for granted. But they can be achieved by patient, compassionate hard work repeated over time. Recently, some of that kind of work paid off when one of the students at the James C. Hormel School reached a significant milestone in his skills development—and his mom was there to witness it.
Khalon is a bright, sunny kid with a huge smile and an inquisitive approach to the world. His work with his Instructors at JCH School has focused on helping him to stay on task, be patient, work toward a goal, and develop life skills. That skill list includes basic communication. Like approximately 1/3 of people on the autism spectrum, Khalon has no spoken language. For about a year, his speech language team at VIA has been working on developing his skill with an assistive computer device that can do his speaking for him.
Individual base skills are valuable, but the real value to families comes when patience and focus and communication get applied to the more complicated tasks of daily life. “We work on a lot of stuff with K.,” says Shane Racer, one of Khalon’s Instructors. “We work on things like crossing the street, loading the dishwasher, going out for groceries….” And this school year, one of those higher level goals has been learning to eat out at a restaurant.
It took about a month of work building toward that goal before Khalon was ready to practice his new restaurant skills in public. His speech language team worked with him to build the elements on his device to express what he wants to drink, eat, and where he wants to go. Every day at lunch in the classroom, Instructors worked with him to sit for the entire thirty-minute period without getting up. They also practiced ordering a meal and even using a credit card to pay for the meal. Then they took it on the road, to practice the whole skill set in public in an actual restaurant.
Late last month, Khalon’s mom, Shantisha, joined Khalon and Shane and a few other VIA staff at McDonalds to see her son put his new skills into action. Cell phones were snapping pictures as he stepped to the counter and used his communication device to place his order and respond to the server. With the order placed, he reached into his pocket to complete the transaction.
“Oh my god, he’s got a wallet,” said Shantisha. She started to tear up a bit as she watched her son for the first time pay for something on his own.
The meal was full of smiles and laughs and more pictures. After it was done, Shane worked with Khalon to show how he uses his communication device. “What’s your name?” Shane asked. Khalon typed few quick pecks, and the machine spoke the answer. “Where do you live?” Another few pecks and the machine answered again.
“Just look at that progress,” said VIA’s Family Resource Navigator Hilary Nagel. “He’s learned that this is his voice.”
Shantisha started to get choked up again as she watched Khalon and Shane interact. “Their bond – seeing him work with him…. it’s like….” she put her hand to her chest as the emotion built. “Seeing him out in public, seeing how good he is and how much he enjoys it, it’s just very, very special.”
“We don’t get to go out too much as a family,” Shantisha added. “We haven’t really tried us all going out to eat yet. But now we will. I want to give that to my chlldren, to let them know I love them.”