Jodi Hammond, speech language pathologist extraordinaire, has worked with my son for almost seven years. Where, oh where, does time go? I remember the first time we met her, soon after I’d given birth to my fourth child. I was exhausted and Bear’s world had been rocked by the arrival of his new brother. Complicating matters further, he’d also just switched schools for the fifth time in five years (long story). Circumstances weren’t ideal in his little world – and he wasn’t happy about any of it.
One of the things I absolutely love about Jodi is that she won’t put up with any of Bear’s shenanigans. She’s had his number from day one and has never been intimidated. Barrett was a cute little bug at the time (he was six), and his standard defense against anyone who wanted to reach him was to crawl into their lap and cuddle (sometimes he’d even fall asleep). Although sweet, it wasn’t getting us anywhere. There were battles as Jodi and Bear got to know one another – loud ones. It was at this point in my therapy tour of duty that I started waiting in the car, rather than the clinic’s waiting room, so I didn’t have to hear the two of them go at it. I am not kidding.
Seven years later, it’s a love fest. I trust Jodi completely, as does my son. Jodi’s had some extraordinary verbal exchanges with Barrett. In the beginning we were skeptical of her claims, until she started providing recorded proof. When I win the lottery, Jodi will be living on easy street, in a luxury guest house on the grounds of our palatial estate. My dream would be to hire her full time (well, more than full time – every waking hour!) to work with our Bear – which apparently wouldn’t be out of the question based on her early work experience. She’s a rock star!
Here’s our interview:
What kind of degree did you have to get? To be a licensed Speech-Language Pathologist (SLP), you must obtain a master’s degree. I have a Master of Science in Communication Disorders. In addition to my master’s, I also recently obtained my Educational Specialist Degree in Curriculum and Instruction. However, that was not required to be a SLP.
What kind of certifications do you have? At the moment, I’m ASHA (American Speech-Language and Hearing Association) certified and a Georgia state certified SLP. There are other certifications I hold as well, for professional development purposes. All ASHA certified SLPs must participate in continuing education courses in order to maintain certification (10 hours/year, and have a total of 30 hours every 3 years in order to maintain certification).
(Note: not all SLPs in the school setting have this certification, as it is not required. So those of us who do maintain it must pay dues out of pocket. ASHA certification is required to work in the private sector.)
How long have you been a speech therapist? I obtained my B.S. in Communication Disorders in May of 2000. At that time, I worked for a rural school district in upstate New York while working toward completing my M.S. degree. So, I’ve been in the profession for almost 14 years. (Whoa!)
What age ranges do you work with? I currently work with individuals from 3 to 23 years of age.
In what ways is it different to work with a child who has autism? There isn’t a straight forward answer to that question. I see every child I work with as a unique individual and therefore I work with them all differently. The challenge of working with a child who has Autism is developing a strong rapport. I’ve found that if you can figure out how a child interprets his/her environment and the people within it, you can find a way to reach them and encourage them to advocate for themselves. Whether it’s finding a way to communicate basic wants or helping a child to express their emotions – the child must want it for him/herself before it’ll happen.
Do you approach private therapy differently than in a school-based setting? Not really. I’m extremely passionate about my profession and no matter what setting I’m employed in, I’d like to think that my goal is always the same…to help the individual. I know for some reason many families hold private therapy in higher regard than the therapy provided within a school system, and I continue to rack my brain as to why. The only answer I can develop is private therapy provides a 1:1 setting that is generally non-interrupted. Also, after the session parents receive face-to-face interaction with the therapist. As to the type of therapy that is provided, I can only speak for myself and say that I use similar techniques and strategies in both settings.
Do you have any personal experiences (outside of work) with autism? Unfortunately no, I do not. All my experiences have occurred through various employment opportunities.
What is the best part of your job? The most rewarding part of my job is knowing that in some way, shape or form, I’ve had an impact, hopefully a positive one, on a child’s life.
What are the challenges? In all honestly, it’s challenging and frustrating not to be viewed as a “specialist” in the Georgia school system. In addition to being required to have extensive knowledge on all aspects of speech and language disorders, we must be able to effectively evaluate each area of concern. Then we have to diagnose/interpret the strengths and weakness of each child, in order to devise a plan for treatment. We compile all this information to write an eligibility report and in most cases, an Individual Education Plan (IEP). In my opinion, SLPs who work in the school system have the highest number of caseloads and the most paperwork responsibilities. I don’t think most people realize how much behind-the-scenes work we have to do to support our colleagues, students, and families.
Do the parents drive you crazy? Be honest! The parents that I work with have all become an extension of my friends and family. When you work so closely with a family to support their child, a strong bond often develops. I actually love that part of my job! In the almost 14 years that I’ve worked in the profession, I can count on only one hand the number of parents that have been challenging to deal with.
In your opinion, what can schools do to promote awareness and inclusion of special needs students? I think integration of special needs students within the school and the community is essential – and sharing knowledge is key. Committees should be developed to promote awareness throughout the year, not just during Exceptional Children’s Week. The committee could be responsible for planning various activities or programs to support inclusion. I don’t think the responsibility should fall solely on the Special Education Department, because they have so much work to do educating that population. Schools should encourage mentoring programs, book buddies, etc., so the students can learn about each other firsthand.
What do you wish people understood about autism? I wish that all people took the time to be educated about the various aspects of autism. It frustrates me when people assume that a child isn’t smart because they’re not speaking consistently or won’t be successful in life because they struggle to gauge a social situation. Some of the most intelligent children I’ve ever met have had some degree of autism.
What have your students/clients taught you? My students/clients are constantly teaching me things – I learn from each and every one of them. The most important thing they’ve taught me is that learning never ends. I love the constant challenges of my job, because my kids keep me on my toes. They encourage me to continue learning new techniques to help them reach their full potential.
How can parents help? When it comes to therapy, it’s extremely helpful when what is being worked on with the SLP is reinforced at home by the parents. It’s also beneficial to have open communication with the parents. If I’m aware of what occurs outside of therapy – at home or in school – I can often tailor what I do in my session to further support the parents or teachers.
Can you share a moment from your therapy experiences that validated your choice to go into speech therapy? Approximately two years ago, I met a 19 year old boy who’d never had any sort of private therapy. He entered the clinic and appeared to be very scared. He was also extremely loud and full of energy. He wouldn’t stay with me when we were walking, unless I had a hold of his arm. He often ran away from me and was extremely vocal throughout his sessions. Needless to say, I had a lot of exercise the first few months that I worked with him. He had no communication system and didn’t even use basic sign language to express his wants/needs. After working closely with an occupational therapist to coordinate our efforts with him, I’m proud to say that he now communicates using verbal approximations and basic sign language. He also utilizes an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) app on his tablet to communicate with others. He’s now 22 years-old and is able to sit and attend an activity, walk calmly in public places and interact appropriately with many communicative partners. By personally witnessing his evolution, which was possible because people believed in him and consistently worked with him, I felt validated that I made the right career choice.
Do you know of any therapy techniques on the horizon that you’re excited about? I can’t recall any new technique on the horizon per se, but I’m glad that executive functioning skills are now gaining more attention. Because of the new awareness, children who struggle with those skills are being identified and supported in the schools.
Give me your first impression of Barrett. When I first met Barrett, he was full of energy and constantly moving. I remember him yelling and crying a lot in the beginning. He wouldn’t communicate unless it was his absolute last option. From the beginning, I knew he was going to challenge me in every way possible. He was determined to show me that I couldn’t “make” him do anything he didn’t want to do.
Give me a moment that Bear made you the most proud! The day Bear looked into my eyes and told me that he loved me melted my heart. Not to sound corny, but he makes me proud whenever he tries to communicate on his own. We’ve had a long journey together and it’s the simple, everyday acts that warm my heart.
What do you think is Barrett’s most significant accomplishment this year? I feel like Bear is starting to take notice that he can communicate and share great information – when he’s motivated. I’m not saying that he consistently communicates on his own, because I believe he often chooses not to, but he regularly does so in the structured therapy environment. When he’s in a session with me, he’s able to form longer and more detailed sentences. I feel like he’s finally making a connection to what communication is and how it can benefit him.
You’ve officially worked with Barrett longer than any therapist or teacher, seven years! What frustrates you about Bear? I think we all share the same frustration when it comes to our beloved Bear. We ALL want to him talk! Not just when prompted, not only when he wants something, but all of the time! He’s such a smart kid and you can tell by the glimmer in his eye and the cackle in his laugh, that he has one sarcastic sense of humor. I’m sure he would have us all in stitches if he was able communicate freely.
What do you see for his future?
What I hope is that Bear discovers a way to communicate without prompting. I know we’ve talked about it before, but I continue to wonder if an AAC device/app could ease his communication frustrations from time to time. We’ve tried many modalities, including AAC apps, but he hasn’t indicated that he prefers one, but still…I think it would help. He has the ability to talk, but it’s almost as if he needs someone to press a “start button” to get a phrase to come out of his mouth. I just hate that for him. I wish we could discover the hidden secret that holds back his continuous speech output.
Thank you Jodi! You are truly an angel, and an inspiration. Here’s to seven more very successful years!
Tell me about your experiences with speech therapy. Have you had children in speech therapy (even if they’re not on the spectrum)? Were you familiar with the profession? I for one didn’t know anything about speech therapy, except as related to stroke victims, until I had kids (because with premature babies, you hear a lot about speech therapy). I truly believe they do have a super power!