For anybody with autism, getting anybody to understand what you want or need at any given time can be difficult enough as it is. It’s even worse if you’re nonverbal and have to find alternative ways of communicating with people. There are a number of therapies being tested to help with that, like spelling out words and learning sign language. Let’s meet a teen from the Chicago area who has started reaching out to both reach others like him and teach other people about them.
A few years ago, Mitchell Robins, a nonverbal autistic, couldn’t tell anybody precisely what he was thinking. At age 4, he lost his ability to speak and primarily relied on a system of pictures and limited sign language to tell his parents and caregivers what he wanted to eat, when he felt sick, or how he wanted to spend his time. Then, his parents realized he could spell. Now 17, Mitchell communicates deliberately, pointing at letters on a board. A question will be asked to him and his expression will go back and forth between deep concentration and a jovial grin as he spells out his answer. Mitchell has said that using this type of communication has changed his life because he could get his wants and needs met. He’s very happy people are finally figuring out how to reach people like him because it’s a human rights issue that needs to be solved. I hope we’re getting closer to that every day too, Mitchell.
After all of this happened, he was able to tell his parents he wanted to start taking classes at the local high school and meet with friends at a coffee shop, where they would talk about normal things that teenagers talk about. When his parents realized he understood much more than they thought, his mom, Susan Robins, said they went from reading him Dr. Seuss to Harry Potter “basically overnight”. Maybe you should’ve started paying attention to him sooner, Mrs. Robins.
In March 2019, Mitchell started a blog about his daily life. Mitchell hopes to show the world that those who communicate differently shouldn’t be underestimated by telling his story. The blog already has readers from almost every continent. Susan says this about her son with tears in her eyes, “It shows you the huge capabilities of these individuals with autism who are nonverbal. They have huge capabilities, but we just don’t know how to access it, and this is a way to access it. Mitchell has so much to share, and we just didn’t know”. Back in 2012, Susan attended a presentation about a therapy called Rapid Prompting Method, teaching nonverbal individuals to communicate by spelling, answering fact-based and yes-or-no questions on a plastic alphabet stencil board, building up to open-ended questions on a paperlike letterboard. Many spellers eventually transition to independent spelling on an iPad or computer keyboard. Sounds pretty useful, and innovative depending on who you ask.
Susan was skeptical as in previous therapies they tried, Mitchell wasn’t able to select from a set of cards which one had a happy face. When she expressed her concern about Mitchell learning spelling, one of the presenters parents told her he knows. She soon realized her son was absorbing the world by reading books and street signs and listening to his dad help his sister with her algebra homework. He actually understood everything but didn’t have a way to tell them. Another reason to pay better attention to your kids, parents.
When Mitchell started the therapy, he spelled to his sister that he loved her for the first time ever. He also writes letters to his mom thanking her for all she does. When they started practicing math, he already knew how to solve equations, but needed to learn simple tables he hadn’t been taught in school. Last semester, Mitchell got a B+ in the business class he’d been taking at Highland Park High School, on top of a full online course load including advanced physics and social studies. He particularly enjoys learning about the civil rights movement. There hasn’t been much research to back up success stories for this type of therapy, but Susan has seen the difference it’s made in Mitchell’s life. Maybe add this to the list of success stories for it?
Susan has said they obviously loved Mitchell before all of this started, but they would be dressing him and feeding him and trying to get him to smile, but they never really knew him. Mitchell sets his own goals during sessions with therapists who help him with his schoolwork, life skills and communication. He’s been practicing writing posts for his blog with fewer breaks and holding longer conversations. Taylor Janisch, one of his therapists, says after every session they talk about a topic of his choice, saying she considers Mitchell a friend. While Mitchell spells, someone holds up the letterboard to his visual field and nobody moves the board or touches his arms or hands. Susan says he’s come a long way since he started and is reaching what can be considered open communication. Janisch says lots of people in the school system Mitchell’s age are being asked a lot of questions and to imagine if you couldn’t speak or communicate but were still you inside yourself, not knowing what to do and feeling trapped. Don’t we all feel that way sometimes, not knowing the right thing to say or feeling we can’t say anything at all for any reason?
Mitchell eventually learned to type on an iPad that speaks what he’s writing and types his blog posts on a computer keyboard by himself. For people who struggle with motor skills, spelling can be exhausting, so for breaks he flops on a beanbag in a corner of the room. He uses sign language for quick requests. He says he blogs to help families of other nonverbal people with autism understand their capabilities. He recently wrote about the frustration he feels when people talk down to him simply because they assume he can’t understand what they’re saying. I had a teacher in my senior year of high school who treated me almost the exact same way, so I relate to your frustration Mitchell.
Readers sometimes leave messages asking about the therapy and encouraging him to keep writing in the comments section. Mitchell has said that reaching people feels amazing because he’s making a difference. He further says that people need to stop underestimating people with autism because their perspective is as important. They’re intelligent and amazing people who deserve the benefits of open communication.
So try to find this blog, check out some of the posts and comment. I’m kind of considering checking it out myself actually. Thanks for sharing your story Mitchell. I hope more people find out about it and even try out the therapy you were tried on for other nonverbal people.