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Music to the Ears: One little boy takes strides on two very different instruments

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When 10-year-old Gabriel May of Columbus, Ohio, looked up at the ceiling several months ago and said "light," his speech therapist Lindsey Cargill was floored. "I cried my face off," she said. "The sound of his voice was one of the most beautiful things I've ever heard."

Fueling Cargill's reaction was the fact that such a thing wasn't "supposed" to happen. Gabriel, a child diagnosed on the autism spectrum at age 4, had been nonverbal since before he turned 2-years-old. By 10, the odds were against him that he would ever speak for himself.

"We just have so few cases in which this has happened," said Cargill. Traditionally, she explained, by one year a child has their first word, by 2 they might have between 150 and 300 used in phrases and by 5 or 6 they've usually got the foundation - if not the vocabulary - for everything else. Thus, conventional wisdom says "the language window closes around 5."

But Gabriel is full of surprises, and not just for his speech therapist.

The Sound of Music

For many years an electric piano in the attic had drawn her son's attention, said Gabriel's mother Emma May. He kept going back to it so often it was eventually moved to his room, where he would bang on it at will. One day about a year ago, though, May was in Gabriel's room cleaning and, growing weary of the discord, she asked him a favor.

"I said, 'Can you play a song for Mommy? Can you play Happy Birthday to You?'" May recalled.

Sure enough, he perfectly tapped out the familiar tune as though he'd been in lessons all along, when in fact the only attempt at instruction had been abandoned at age 6 when the teacher said Gabe was too restless and wouldn't pay attention. "I was so shocked," May said. "So I asked him, can you play Mary Had a Little Lamb, and he did. It was amazing."

Now, May said, she's bought him a CD and he plays Beethoven's works like Für Elise and Moonlight Sonata - all by ear. "It's not always perfect, but it's amazing," May said. "He can't read music; he just plays it by himself."

Gabe playing piano and telling Lindsey to "stop that" when she interrupts his songs.

Gabe playing piano and telling Lindsey to "stop that" when she interrupts his songs.

Another Instrument

The path to speech, though perhaps as miraculous, was not so spontaneous.

"When Gabe and I started, we used a picture card system for words," said Cargill. "He absolutely flew. He was doing parts of the program before I even got to them. It became clear we wouldn't be able to keep up with him as far as creating material for him to be able to communicate what he wanted to say. He had a lot more to say than just simple requests. "I became frustrated with my inability to give him what he needed."

So Cargill began lobbying to try to get Gabriel a Prentke Romich Vantage Lite device and utilized a technique called Language Acquisition through Motor Planning or LAMP. Through the device, users can press buttons and sequences of buttons and the device in turn speaks those words and phrases aloud for them, essentially creating a surrogate voice.

The power of the device, explained Cargill, is perhaps best illustrated by an example of Gabe himself using it after he got it. Trying to talk about an "elevator," Gabe used the button for "alligator," not because he confused the two objects but because the sounds so approximated each other. "If we were relying on pictures, he never would have pushed that button," Cargill said. "But because he's able to rely on a specific motor plan, we're able to do things not possible on other devices. More doors are open for him because he's able to access things very quickly.

"That's huge for somebody with autism, that they don't have to focus on how to say something, but on what they want to say and who they're saying it to," she continued. "It's like he's typing..... or playing an instrument."

Gabe directing Lindsey and commenting on what he sees while playing on a literacy website.

Gabe directing Lindsey and commenting on what he sees while playing on a literacy website.

Making Notes

Just how things get so intuitive is really not a matter of miracles, said Cargill. "What I see with a lot of systems is that it feels like, for whatever reason, we throw the rules of language development out the window." The way the Vantage Lite works, she said, is that it allows users to develop a small vocabulary of words that can be used across a broad spectrum of contexts before going on to string those words together in simple two or three word phrases. Or, to put it a little less clinically, words like "stop," "go," "up" or "down" are far more useful than something like "giraffe." Eventually, the systems allows for development of more complex interaction, discussing things like prepositions or emotions.

Intuition might say why not instead create a series of pre-programmed useful basic phrases - "I need to use the bathroom," for example -- but Cargill said such a system would ultimately be limiting. As cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker wrote, language is a way to make infinite use out of a finite media. That is, people use a certain set of words to express countless thoughts and ideas. "I think about everything I need to say in a day, and I know I couldn't pre-program all that into a device for myself," she said. "If I can't do it for myself, then I can't do it for a kid. And if we just say well, that kid just can't say as much, that they can only use these certain phrases, then we've given up on them already."

Gabe reading about colors and clothing in an adapted children's book.

Gabe reading about colors and clothing in an adapted children's book.

The Food of Love

In Shakespeare's play Twelfth Night, one character famously says "if music be the food of love, play on," wishing that music could cure his obsession with love as easily as food cures an appetite. For Gabriel, the "music" of the Vantage Lite did just that. From 18-months of age, the time he quit talking, Gabriel was a restless child, May said. "He wouldn't look you in the eyes and wouldn't listen to you," she recalled. "He'd throw screaming fits, and sometimes if you'd do something, he'd get frustrated, really really mad, and wouldn't stop crying for so long, like 45 minutes."

In addition, he had a tendency to wander off. Without constant attention, he'd be out the door in a heartbeat, causing his parents to always have eyes on him, at home, at the mall - everywhere.

All that is changed now, May said. "It's really so amazing," she said. "I look back since April last year and I watch Gabriel do things I thought would be impossible when he was 6."

And it's not just that she doesn't fear him running away anymore, or that the frustration is gone because he can communicate what's upsetting him now. There are other things, too. He does chores like sorting laundry and washing dishes. He's an athlete who participates in track, gymnastics and basketball. He may be going back to piano lessons, as well. He even gets along with his younger sister - at least, most of the time.

"I see a lot of typical kids; I've seen them grow up with Gabriel, and I look at these kids and Gabriel is better behaved than they are," May said. "I'm so glad God gave me Gabriel instead."

Of course, while the Vantage Lite has opened many doors for Gabriel in communication, so much so that he's taken to speaking more and more with his own voice in the past six months, May credits time and devotion and love with helping her son grow up and mature, too.

"We've tried to be patient and let him do things in his own way," she said. "We've given him lots of love and many people have been a big, big, big help. That's given us a bunch of joy in our household."