Making a Positive Impact – One Student at a Time

Story originally published March 14, 2011 in The Cornerstone. Click here to read more Success Stories.

By Nancy Brown, GPAEA Communication Specialist 
(Contributions from Diane John, GPAEA Speech-Language Pathologist)

Eric Waples, student

Eric Waples, student

Great Prairie AEA and the local school district educators in southeastern Iowa work in partnership to make significantly positive impacts on each and every student in each of the 35 districts in the area. Once in awhile, one student stands out as one who has made tremendous progress for one reason or another. This article focuses on one such student and we are proud to share news of his progress. The student is Eric Waples, a High School Junior attending Danville Community School District. Eric is not new to the AEA; services have been provided for him since he was 2-years-old. Eric is special in many ways. He loves books. He has an excellent memory. He is very interested in technology and computer usage. He has autism, speech and language challenges. And he is a very positive and intelligent young man.

Through the years of Eric’s educational experience, the AEA Special Education educators have worked side-by-side with the local district teachers to meet his needs. He was diagnosed with Autism at a very young age. His challenges are that he has been largely non-verbal and has struggled with communicative intent and understanding the functions of language. For example, he has difficulty being able to ask or answer questions, express his own ideas, add comments, or share information. Eric is very good with technology and uses a Franklin Speller to respond to questions, but he has not been able to generate expressive language or add to answers. He didn’t seem to enjoy social parts of language such as greetings or conversations in general.

Diane John, Great Prairie AEA Speech-Language Pathologist, has worked with Eric, along with local district staff, parents – Donita and Steve Waples, and was determined to find strategies that could enhance Eric’s communications skills. In 2009, she attended the Iowa Speech and Hearing Conference with a focus on Childhood Apraxia of Speech. Ruth Stoekel, Ph.D., a Speech-Language Pathologist from Mayo Clinic, provided information on Childhood Apraxia of Speech (CAS), which is a neurological childhood pediatric speech sound disorder in which the precision and consistency of movements underlying speech are impaired in the absence of neuromuscular deficits. Diane and her colleagues had thought that Eric had some type of praxis – a problem with the ability to plan movement. If Eric did have Apraxia of Speech, meaning severe difficulty with motor planning necessary to talk, and was a young man with Autism, his challenges were many. The even more challenging part for Eric was to create a desire to communicate with others.

Those that have had the opportunity to work with Eric have noted his love of books. District staff, along with his parents, decided that one of Eric’s jobs to earn a credit in school would be to check in and reshelf books. Library Associate Tina Goodwin was happy to assist with the training. Eric has a remarkable memory, so knowing where and how to shelve books would be easy to teach and coach with Associate guidance. What no one imagined would happen was that Eric would begin to try to say the book titles! He wanted to share this information with his Associate, Nancy Jacobs, and Mrs. Goodwin. The desire to communicate was created. His Associate and he would laugh and joke about titles or content of the books in the elementary library.

In the beginning, no one could understand what Eric was saying, just that there was definite noise and pauses at words. His Associate, Nancy, has a special relationship with Eric and makes events such as this joyful and fun. Eric blossomed! His family took him to Mayo Clinic where he was officially diagnosed with Childhood Apraxia of Speech by Dr. Edith Strand, colleague of Dr. Ruth Stoekel. The groundwork was set and implementation of motor speech therapy started. Eric moved from being a non-verbal individual to verbal. He still has communication challenges, most likely compounded by his original diagnosis of Autism. His motor speech issues are severe and require incredible effort on Eric’s part, but he is talking and he is up to the challenge!

Eric is involved with a social skills group along with other students who are on the Autism spectrum. The group is coordinated by Donita Waples and Diane John. He also receives motor speech therapy and practice both at school and at home. The Danville District staff has been very supportive of Eric throughout the years. Principals Steve Ita and Theresa Ritters are huge advocates and are always willing to listen to ideas to implement the best plan for Eric. Special Education teacher, Roberta Pfadenhauer, and Associate, Nancy Jacobs, challenge Eric and create an atmosphere for him that is both educationally demanding as well as enjoyable. His other Associate is his mother, Donita Waples, and she has been wonderful for Eric in the academic arena. She understands the need for practical and functional curriculum.

With the assistance of the whole team of educators in the Danville District, Great Prairie AEA staff and his parents, Eric’s future looks bright. Being able to speak will open opportunities for him as he transitions into the world of work or post-secondary education. This approach worked for Eric. As with all diagnoses, treatments are specific to the individual. To over-generalize this outcome to others with similar diagnoses would be inappropriate and potentially harmful.

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