Future Reflections Summer 1996, Vol. 15 No. 3
By Pam Schachter
California Deaf-Blind Services
Reprinted from the VIP Newsletter, a publication of the Blind Children's Fund, 2875 Northwind Drive, Suite 211, East Lansing, Michigan 48823-5040.
As I listened to Dr. Van Dijk's presentation and watched the accompanying videos I noted the frequent use of calendar boxes by his students who are deaf-blind. Listening to chitchat during the breaks, I heard many participants in the conference express interest in the use of calendar boxes as a communication tool. Calendar boxes help a person who is deaf-blind anticipate what activity is going to happen next by sequentially organizing object cues that represent the day's activities. Calendar boxes can be used at home and school by families and teachers. Communicating with a child who is deaf-blind may seem highly technical and complex. The purpose of this article is to show you how easily you can get started.
Gather together the objects that the child is using for communication. If you are just getting started with object communication it is important to select object cues very carefully. The object should be an item that will be as easy as possible for the child to associate with the activity by sight, sound, or touch. Consider how it feels, looks, and sounds to do the activity from the child's perspective, not yours. Put on a blindfold and hold the object. What does it tell you?
If you need a cue to tell a child that she will be placed in her wheelchair, look at her when she is in her chair and observe where her hands typically rest. Does her face generally touch something? A piece of fabric or metal that feels the same will likely be a meaningful cue for the student. A dollhouse wheel chair, while a very concrete symbol for us, will not look or feel at all like a wheelchair to the student.
Some activities are not practical to represent with the most significant feature; for instance, using water to represent bath time. You may need to add an object to the routine to help you choose an object cue. Consider using a favorite bath toy or adding scented soap that the child can use during each bath.
Keep in mind that your object cues may be lost, thrown in the trash, or otherwise destroyed. Make sure you choose something you can easily replace! Try to choose objects that are small enough for a child to hold in one hand, but not so small that they are easily lost or swallowed.
When a child is using more than one object cue calendar boxes will help to organize and sequence the day's activities. Even just two different objects can be organized to help the child to know what is going to happen next. Dr. Van Dijk's students had wooden boxes with many compartments mounted to the wall. This style of box may work for some students but is not practical for all situations.
Plastic containers or shoe boxes that are glued in place or tied together will work just as well. Any containers that you have in the classroom or at home can be used. Consider the physical abilities and needs of your child when choosing materials. A child who uses materials forcefully might do well with sturdy plastic containers, while a child with limited range of motion may be able to grasp an object out of a very shallow container. Consider the color of the containers and choose a color to contrast with the object cues for students with some usable vision. Choose another container for a "finished box." This is where the child will place an object when the activity it represents is completed.
There is no magical moment when you and your child are ready to begin. As soon as you have gathered the materials, leap right in. Guide the child to the boxes and assist him to reach in, touch, look at, and examine the object. Mouthing is fine too, if this is not a behavior you are trying to stop. Give the child enough time to thoroughly examine the object. Tell him, with a few words or signs or both, what is about to happen. Take the object with you to the place or activity it represents. When the activity is completed, return to the calendar boxes and help the child to place the object in the finished box. Say or sign "finished" or "all done" or you can use a symbol. Completing the cycle of getting out an object and then putting it in the finished box is really critical. Many children with deaf-blindness have no concept of the beginning or the end of objects or activities. With limited sight and hearing everything just appears, almost magically, and disappears the same way. Consistent use of calendar boxes assists children to anticipate what is going to happen next and to understand that events have a start and a finish. These are important concepts to develop; they provide the child with a wonderful sense of control over his environment.
Of course, these techniques will not always work so easily in your home or classroom as I have described above. Your child may throw the objects, tear them, or scream when you help him reach into the box. You may need to choose more indestructible objects, or move more slowly in asking the child to hold or reach. You may need to choose objects that are not overstimulating to children with tactile defensiveness. Don't give up because it seems that you are doing all the work and the child is passively receiving your input. It may take many months or even years of consistently telling the child what is about to happen before you see a noticeable response. Think of it as "listening" time, taking in what you are "saying." All children deserve to be told what is happening to them in a way that they can understand, even if they don't tell us anything back.
Add more objects and boxes when the need arises and you feel that the child can handle more demands and input. It is better to have only a few objects that are used consistently than many that have no real meaning for the child.
You will know that the objects are gaining meaning by closely watching the child's behavior. A smile when feeling the object, a relaxing of muscle tone, a purposeful reach toward the place or activity to be done, approaching the boxes and searching for the object; these are just a few of the possible behaviors that will tell you that a connection is being made.
Object communication and calendar boxes can be powerful communication tools for a child with deaf-blindness. They may also be a new and confusing method of communication for a teacher, parent, or therapist. Don't hesitate to call California Deaf-Blind Services or your state's deaf-blind services to request assistance to develop a communication system that is uniquely suited to your child.