Fifth graders at Robinson Elementary School in Hazard, KY love having Kelby Johnson in their group for class projects. He is smart, funny, easy to work with, pays attention and gets things done. Best of all, he has a kind heart.

Kelby’s cousin Donna Smith, a sixth grader at the school, looks forward to when he stops by her locker to say hello, sometimes with a gentle hug. Such moments have a way of taking her back to when they were small. Kelby would pull Donna or her brother Kain by the hand when he wanted to join them in games or activities. Or he simply walked away when he didn’t feel like playing.

Non-verbal because of his autism, Kelby has always communicated by making gestures, showing pictures, pointing or writing. All are OK for getting simple messages across, but let Kelby share just limited amounts of information. Those who’ve known Kelby all his life or see him every day know he has way more to say.  So, people are super excited that Kelby has a more complete way of letting others hear his voice now that Tobii Dynavox Compass software on an iPad is his main mode of communication.

We met Kelby when he made the local news in his hometown back in the spring when he gave a presentation using Compass at a Special Needs Awareness Evening in a neighboring school district. His budding advocacy means a lot, said his mother, Amanda Johnson. “Now he can tell people what it’s like to live with autism.”

Kelby told a captive audience that he wants to be known as a regular kid who likes hanging out with other kids and is eager to make new friends. Frustration and silence have been lifted from Kelby’s interactions, thanks to the technology, while others have a new appreciation for who he is as a person.

“It’s just been awesome,” Mrs. Johnson said. “Totally awesome.” She delights in the revelation of her son’s lighter and more serious sides now that he has a reliable means of self-expression.

kelby-schoolworkIn the past, Mrs. Johnson said, Kelby expressed important things, like the hurt he felt when peers teased him for being different, by crying. Now he can channel his feelings into words and talk it out. Kelby’s strong receptive language skills have been obvious all along. But now his sense of humor, with a dose of gentle sarcasm now and then, emerges as he speaks through the technology. Unafraid to utter “Duh” at his own—or a loved one’s—honest everyday mistakes, Kelby is also not shy when it comes to letting others know when he is too busy for small talk. His cousin Donna likes the Quickfires feature on Compass because he can voice such things simply without typing every word, a perfect workaround for his motor planning issues. She likes that he listens, too. Once when they were doing homework together, he heard her tell her mom she didn’t know how to answer a science question. Kelby walked over to her and showed her the correct response using his Compass app.

Amanda Terry became Kelby’s classroom aide when he started preschool. She took the job because she wanted to work at the same school her daughter attended. Soon they became a nice extension of Kelby’s family. Amanda Terry knew little about autism spectrum disorders then, but she quickly identified what she has always considered to be the only thing separating Kelby from typical students in his classes.

“In a classroom you couldn’t pick him out, except that he can’t talk,” she said. “That’s really his biggest challenge.”

Mrs. Terry saw early on that Kelby liked language. She also knew his potential to do more with it by how well he matched words with corresponding picture symbols on an app and mastered new vocabulary as easily as his peers. Mrs. Terry wanted to help Kelby fill whatever gaps his inability to speak created. She recalled her enthusiasm when his mom asked her to come over to their house to check out the Tobii Dynavox Compass app she had found online. When Mrs. Johnson asked for her opinion on whether the software would allow her son to branch outward in his development of language, literacy and social communication skills, Mrs. Terry gave two thumbs up. After a free trial period with the software, Kelby’s mom bought him the app and got a second iPad for it.

“When he was first starting,” Mrs. Terry said, “it was very important to keep that separate from his other iPad because he associates that with fun time.” For Kelby fun goes beyond tablet computers. He likes swimming, skating, beach vacations, ATVs and motorcycles. He likes the weights, swings, weighted blankets, exercise balls and other items that ease his sensory challenges.

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