A woman charted her encounter with a boy on a plane
A woman charted her encounter with a boy on a plane

Language expert teaches autistic child to communicate through pictures during long-haul flight

‘I just had such an affirming experience’

Helen Coffey
Thursday 29 August 2019 11:28
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A passenger on a flight has shared her “affirming experience” after helping a child with non-verbal autism figure out how to communicate using pictures.

Rachel R Romeo, a speech-language pathologist and developmental neuroscientist from Boston, tweeted about the encounter in a viral thread that has had 85,000 likes and more than 20,000 retweets at the time of writing.

The academic said she happened to be sitting next to a father and son on an eight-hour flight from a conference back to the US.

“In broken English, the father began to apologise/warn me that his 10-year-old son had severe nonverbal autism, and that this would likely be a difficult journey,” she wrote.

Ms Romeo told him not to worry as she was a speech-language pathologist with lots of experience working with minimally verbal children.

“Challenging behaviours began even before take off,” she said of the boy. “Screaming, hitting me, and grabbing for my things. The father repeatedly apologised, but did little else.”

With her experience of working with non-verbal clients, Ms Romeo wondered if there was another way for the boy to communicate.

“I think the child had very little experience with communication therapy,” she said.

Checking with the boy’s father that it was OK, Ms Romeo put away the work she was doing and created a “communication board” for him to use, drawing pictures after discovering he didn’t seem to like screens.

“I summoned my god-awful drawing skills and tried to create a (very!) low-tech board,” she said. “And by god, it clicked. I made symbols for the things he was grabbing, for his favourite stuffed penguin, and for his dad. He took to it very quickly.

“I introduced way more symbols that I normally would, but hey, how often do we get an eight-hour session?!”

By the end of the flight, the boy had made several requests via the board and his challenging behaviours had reduced, according to Ms Romeo.

“The father was astounded,” she said, “I gave him the paper and showed him how to use it, and he nearly cried.”

The heartwarming story has struck a chord with Twitter users.

“How serendipitous for this child that he sat with someone who knew how to be with him!” replied Linda C., while Pauline Hammett responded: “What a treasure you are. Many would have requested a seat change. You have given this boy and his family a gift that money can’t buy.”

Ms Romeo finished her emotive thread: “This was the human desire for communication, pure and simple. To connect with another person and share a thought.

“Communication is a basic human right, and I was overjoyed to help someone find it. What a privilege and a gift.”

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