How my son and his letterboard may have changed a stranger's life

How my son and his letterboard may have changed a stranger's life

BY Susan Baker

2nd Feb 2024 Life

4 min read

The power of my son's letterboard and his message of support may have changed the life of a stranger forever
After a sleepy Saturday morning on my son Andrew’s 15th birthday, I whisk him off to a shoe shop near our home in Toronto to get a pair of sandals. We know the exact style and size he wants, and we time the trip to arrive right when the store opens. Andrew is nonspeaking autistic and prefers to go shopping when it’s not busy.
“Size 41 of those black slip-on sandals, please,” I tell the two clerks at the shop when we arrive.

Birthday shoes

Sandals in a shoe shop
Andrew slips his socked feet into the shoes with no protest or head banging (signs of distress we have seen in the past). A perfect fit. We box them up and pay, and I thank the staff.
As we head toward the door, I say, “It’s Andrew’s birthday today. Fifteen! Got our new shoes and now we’re off to celebrate with family.” 
“Happy birthday!” the sales assistants reply. “Have fun!”.
What comes next only happens when you act on intuition, when the voice inside tells you to do things differently. 
Instead of having Andrew point to the “thank you” symbol on the picture chart he carries with him, I pause and hold up his letterboard.

Andrew's letterboard

For ten years, we have carried around a rudimentary picture chart, which Andrew uses to communicate. It contains images that match his most important and most used words: people, places, food, greetings and activities. Over the years, neighbourhood kids, friends, cousins and classmates have studied the pictures and the strips at the top of the chart that contain even more “representations” of Andrew’s life. 
The chart is banged up and dirty. It has been lost, found and replaced. 
Andrew also uses a text-to-voice app on an iPad that conveys his needs and wants, again through words with picture symbols. These tools offer him the simplest, quickest way to communicate. But they are limited to specific objects, activities and statements.
"Years ago we discovered that Andrew could communicate more through the use of a letterboard"
Years ago, we discovered that Andrew could communicate more than just his basic needs through the use of a letterboard—by pointing to individual letters on an alphabet grid to spell out words, statements, thoughts. It’s a simple but profound tool. We have affixed a letterboard to the back of his picture chart to spare us the trouble of carrying multiple charts and boards. Brilliant.
We came to realise that Andrew would not initiate use of the letterboard on his own; with “motor planning” a challenge for his autistic body, we had to present it to him. As his parents, we need to remember to offer it to Andrew, to give him time to spell out what he wants to say and to respect his wishes if he pushes it away. 
Using the letterboard requires significant time and effort for Andrew, but we persevere because we know it gives him an opportunity to share far more of who he is than can be conveyed though basic pictures and words.
And so, instead of dashing out the shoe-shop door, I hold up the letterboard and ask Andrew how he’d like to respond. 

Awestruck shop assistants

Thank you on tiles
We never know what the receivers of Andrew’s words are thinking while he is writing. Even as the two of us focus on the effort of using the letterboard—the regulation, the concentration, the transcribing—the shop assistants are quiet, watching. Andrew points to each letter, one by one: “Thank you.” And that’s that. When we look up, they are wide-eyed and awestruck. I smile and turn to leave.
One of the staff, a man about my age, speaks up: “Um, can I ask you…what is that? How does he…what are you using there? Because I have a brother-in-law…and he doesn’t talk.” 
"What are you using there? Because I have a brother-in-law... and he doesn't talk"
“Oh! This is an alphabet board that Andrew uses to communicate,” I reply. “Right, Andrew? We’ve practised it for years. It’s quite incredible, as we just didn’t know Andrew was so ‘in there.’ We didn’t even know this tool existed—it’s relatively uncommon. It’s changed everything for us, for our family, for Andrew.”
This is what happens when we show up—in all of who we are—in our light, our strengths and our “deficiencies.” We invite others into our humanness, and we allow them to share theirs.

Jason and Andrew's message

“Let me give you my contact info, as well as the website of the spelling-to-communicate organisation. There, you can find practitioners who will teach you this method,” I continue. “Are you on Facebook? Our family writes a blog and shares stories about our journey.”
I ask the shop assistant about his brother-in-law. Jason is 30 and doesn’t speak, but he can do a lot for himself. Still, no one really knows him. Maybe there’s more there, the assistant wonders. Maybe the family could look into this.
“Amazing!” I say. “We’ve met people—haven’t we, Andrew?—who started using this method when they were 50 or 15 or five! Andrew, what do you think?”.
"Tell Jason he will change everyone’s opinion of him in 26 letters"
I hold up the letterboard, concerned that our time might be running out, but Andrew willingly starts pointing to letters: “Tell Jason…”
I immediately choke up. Sometimes I forget just how powerful the letterboard is. Just how powerful Andrew is.
“Tell Jason he will change everyone’s opinion of him in 26 letters.”
“Wow,” the clerk says. “Thank you.”
Andrew smiles. “It really does change everything,” I say.
And we leave.
I am floating, and Andrew is singing, as he does.

Changing a stranger's life

This is how it happens, how we impact another person’s life in a split second: by vulnerably leading with our own. 
Maybe Jason and the shop assistant are reading this. I hope their family’s life changed because Andrew showed up on his 15th birthday to buy a pair of shoes. 
After Susan Baker originally posted this story on Love, Life & Autism, her Facebook blog, she received numerous messages from people asking how to they could help a loved one get started with a letterboard. Later, she returned to the shoe shop, where she learned that Jason now has a letterboard
© 2024, Susan Baker. From “My son’s split-second decision may have changed another person’s life,” from The Globe and Mail (July 24, 2023), theglobeandmail.com
Banner photo: Susan Baker and her son Andrew and his letterboard (by Brianna Roye)

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