Family & Parenting

A Therapist Helped A Nonverbal Boy With Autism Communicate With His Father On An Airplane

This story of connection gives us the warm fuzzies.

Not all communication is verbal, and no one knows this better than a professional speech-language pathologist. So when Rachel R. Romeo, a developmental neuroscientist and speech-language pathologist, was given the opportunity to put her skills to use while on an international flight, she was ready.

Romeo was seated next to a father and son on her flight. The boy’s dad explained to her in broken English that his son had autism and was nonverbal. So when the boy became frustrated and began screaming, hitting Romeo and grabbing at her things, she intuitively knew how she might use alternative strategies to communicate with him.

She later shared her story on Twitter, and it has since gone viral.

“I just had such an affirming experience,” she wrote in the first tweet. “On my 8hr intl flight back from a conference, I sat next to a father/son. In broken English, the father began to apologize/warn me that his 10-year-old son had severe nonverbal autism, and that this would likely be a difficult journey.”

Romeo went on to explain that when the challenging behaviors began, she tried to ask the boy’s father how his son preferred to communicate:

“I asked him how his son preferred to communicate,” she wrote. “He didn’t seem to understand. Perhaps this was a language barrier, but I think instead the child has very little experience with communication therapy. I put away the talk I was working on & asked if I could try. He nodded.”

In subsequent tweets, Romeo explained that she started by pulling up images of some standard nouns on her computer, but she quickly realized that screens bothered the child. Next, she subbed in a low-tech alternative by drawing images instead, which resonated with him:

“And by god, it clicked,” she wrote. “I made symbols for the things he was grabbing, for his favorite stuffed penguin, and for his dad. He took to it very quickly. I introduced way more symbols than I normally would, but hey, how often do we get an 8-hour session?”

This technique is part of what is known as Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC), which refers to several forms of nonverbal communication. Once this method of communication was established, the boy was able to utilize it to make requests, and it reduced his difficult behaviors as well. His father was pleasantly shocked. Romeo was thrilled that she was able to help:

“This was the human desire for communication, pure and simple,” she wrote. “To connect with another person and share a thought. Communication is a basic human right, and I was overjoyed to help someone find it. What a privilege and a gift.”

She ended her story by expressing her gratitude for how the experience reminded her of why she loves her profession:

After receiving overwhelming support from strangers on Twitter for her act of kindness, Romeo followed up to clarify that she wanted to protect the family’s privacy:

“Please give this family their privacy and don’t try to identify them,” she wrote. “I was purposely vague. Their story is their own and their right to share as they do/don’t wish.”

Kudos to Romeo for bringing the benefit of her expertise to this family while off the clock!