Gio Coletta thrives in all he does, especially when people are around. You’ll often catch the extroverted six-year-old from Harbor Creek, PA waving to others and shaking their hands, even at the college bookstore where his parents work.
“He loves attention,” said his mom Haley. “He likes to be in the mix.” At the same time, Gio is an attentive listener who fully absorbs just about everything he hears. Primarily non-verbal because of his autism, Gio sometimes becomes frustrated that he can’t reciprocate in conversation. But lately, that’s been changing in a way that makes Gio and those around him very happy.
Now, when Gio wants to say something, all he has to do is bring up the Tobii Dynavox Compass software he keeps on an iPad that he uses just for communication. “It works out wonderfully,” his mom said. Gio uses a separate family iPad to read books, play games and for educational apps. He started using Compass a few months ago and takes it with him everywhere. Others finally have the pleasure of getting to know him better than before.
It means the world to Gio’s mother to know exactly what her son needs and how he feels. “Now he can communicate more functionally and more expressively. The functionality is the biggest difference,” Mrs. Coletta said, recalling that Gio could only go so far using picture symbol cards, signing approximations or a smattering of verbal approximations to convey his thoughts. Compass, meanwhile, is a resource for his overall language development, offering visual and behavioral supports. Gio likes the audio reinforcement the software provides in the form of a young boy’s voice.
“Compass is motivating and meaningful for him,” his mom said. Through his use of the software, Gio is becoming more independent in asking for help and learning the importance of making polite “I…” statements when interacting with others.
One of Gio’s closest companions on the journey is his older brother Max, 9, who was diagnosed with autism when Mrs. Coletta was eight months pregnant with Gio. The brothers have varying degrees of Fragile X syndrome, a genetic condition presenting cognitive challenges and commonly linked to autism in boys. Similarities between Gio and Max fade where their personalities come in. “They’re pretty different in how they get through the day,” Mrs. Coletta said. “What works for one doesn’t always work for the other.” Max, for example, is non-verbal and for now, doing well with low-tech symbols and unaided communication strategies (like pointing) as his language develops. He is perfectly content to be alone while Gio is more outgoing, spontaneous and easily excitable. Their mom appreciates Max’s calming influence on Gio and, especially, the quality time the boys spend together. “We choose to celebrate them every day,” she said. “I want them to be as happy and successful as they can be.”
In the morning, the boys ride the bus to the Elizabeth Lee Black School at the National Barber Institute in Erie, PA, and look for each other as the day goes on though they’re in different classrooms. At home, the learning continues.
“I’ve seen Max teach Gio and Gio teach Max,” Mrs. Coletta said. “Sometimes it’s very direct, sometimes it’s very indirect.” She likes that Max tends to go with the flow, setting a good example for Gio, who is often restless. With equal pride and joy, she tells of when Gio, through simple actions, taught Max how to work their CD player. The boys love music and dancing. Bike riding, playground visits and swimming occupy much of their free time. So does Gio’s favorite activity—gymnastics. The boys take gymnastics classes designed for kids on the spectrum. Gio is always asking when the next class is, turning to Compass to help him pose the question.
Barber Institute speech-language pathologist Amy Moczulski, M.A. CCC-SLP recommended Compass because Gio needed a primary functional communication system. She soon found that it also motivated Gio to engage with his peers and initiate interaction more often. “I had never heard him say what he liked before.”
Gio uses Compass to express himself as situations call for, whether telling classmates it’s their turn while playing a game or perhaps fishing for a compliment—as when he showed off his new shoes. Every time this happens is another chance for Gio’s communication partners to get to know him.
“He really has a desire to share experiences,” Mrs. Moczulski said.