I’ve been working with adults with developmental disabilities for as long as I’ve been practicing as a speech-language pathologist, which is more than 15 years. I treated many adults with complex communication needs and other significant speech and language difficulties. I recommended communication systems and trained these adults to use their systems efficiently with all communication partners.
Throughout these experiences, I found parent involvement significantly different from working with children or teens. Why is this? I discovered a variety of reasons including the older age of parents who perhaps moved away or live in a different residences.
Of course, when a parent does accompany your adult client to a session, it’s easy to collaborate. However, when a parent isn’t there, it’s up to us to seek their involvement and learn the valuable information they can share. Even if the client lives in a group home, I feel parent collaboration remains key to success in treatment.
Below, I list some ideas on how to get parents of adult patients involved and why it’s worth it to go to the effort.
- Empower parents: Parents are parents regardless if their child is 5 or 45. For about two years, I worked with a nonverbal adult. When I met him, he used an inefficient communication system. This communication system used symbols without meaning for him and he got no support through communication treatment. This led to significant behavior issues in the day program and at home. Once I began working with this man, I immediately saw the potential in his ability to communicate. I created a no-tech system with highly motivating symbols that he immediately began using with staff to communicate. After seeing his progress, I contacted his mother to discuss her son’s progress in treatment. She started crying, saying she’d lost hope that he could communicate effectively based on what others told her. I reassured her about the potential I saw and promised to help him communicate in a variety of ways. As SLPs, we can empower parents who feel discouraged or without hope.
- Learn background information: These parents know your adult clients the best and can share valuable information about their child’s communication background. They can give insight into how your client communicated as a child and now. They can tell us what works and what doesn’t based on experience. They can also share strategies we might find useful in treatment to help our client achieve speech and language goals. Many parents appreciate this interaction with professionals serving their child, but often wait for us to contact them.
- Gain insight into clients’ home situation: Understanding where your client goes and does each day, who they interact with and how they like to occupy their time at home gives us valuable details. Knowing these facts, helps us devise communication strategies to fit clients’ lifestyles. We can use this information to program specific vocabulary that motivates and engages our clients. I also use these to model familiar situations on their communication system.
- Relay treatment needs: I’ve been working with a client for many years who was minimally verbal, but learned to successfully use his speech-generating device. Within the past six months, his verbal output increased significantly as has the use of his augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) system. I communicated this increase in speech production to the mother who immediately advocated for additional speech-language treatment in addition to his communication treatment. He now communicates both verbally and with his AAC system and has successfully increasing his verbal expressive language.
- Carry over skills at home: Parents can act as treatment partners even with adult clients. Invite them to treatment sessions, so you can collaborate and teach them communication strategies to use at home. Working with parents to help their child can improve your client’s communication in all settings, including a group home, day program, home visits, doctor appointments and other treatment sessions. Encourage parents to use communication systems with their child and leave yourself open to any challenges—or successes—that may arise.
Becca Eisenberg, MS, CCC-SLP, is a speech-language pathologist, author, instructor, and parent of two young children. She also writes a blog, called Gravity Bread, for parents. She’s worked for many years with both children and adults with developmental disabilities in a variety of settings including schools, day habilitation programs, home care and clinics. firstname.lastname@example.org