Rebekah Carmichael-Austin, right, is a Spelling to Communicate practitioner who helps nonverbal and unreliable speakers learn how to communicate. Submitted photo

Rebekah Carmichael-Austin is a practitioner who helps individuals who don’t speak or are unreliable speakers learn to communicate. She taught her son to communicate and wanted to help others do the same.

She was born in western Pennsylvania and grew up there until she graduated high school. She moved to North Carolina and earned her bachelor’s degree in health science, a master’s degree in counseling studies and a master’s degree in business administration project management.

Carmichael-Austin moved to Rangeley 14 years ago. She is married and has four sons, two biological sons and two through marriage to Jared Austin, a police officer.

What is a certified Spelling to Communicate practitioner? I have undergone extensive training under the guidance of skilled professionals. Our mission is to empower nonspeaking, minimally speaking, and unreliably speaking individuals to develop purposeful motor movements, enabling them to communicate autonomously through the use of letter boards and eventually keyboards. The core of my practice lies in teaching individuals the necessary skills to point to letters on a letter board, thereby providing them with a means of communication that is independent and authentic. The journey toward autonomous communication is transformative, offering individuals the opportunity to articulate their thoughts, feelings, and desires in ways that previously were inaccessible to them. Seventy percent of the clients practitioners see are autistic and the other 30% have a motor component to it like Down syndrome or Angelman syndrome. Most of our clients also have apraxia, a neurological condition that disrupts their ability to control body movements despite their desire and physical capability to do so. This brain-body disconnect presents unique challenges, especially in the area of communication and body movements. As a practitioner, I understand the misconceptions and assumptions that often surround the abilities of individuals with disabilities, particularly in intellectual capacities. Our fundamental duty is to presume competence in our clients; to believe wholeheartedly in their capabilities and their desire to learn and communicate at their age level.

How did you decide to go into this profession? Our remarkable journey with my son, Kaleb, has filled me with hope, determination, and the heartfelt desire to empower him. For years, we knew deep in our hearts that there was so much more to Kaleb than what traditional educational testing could reveal. His nonspeaking autism, along with apraxia, presented challenges, yes, but it also held within it the potential for growth, connection, and independence that we were determined to unlock. In our quest for answers and solutions, a dear friend introduced us to the documentary titled “Far from the Tree” by Andrew Solomon. It chronicled the journey of a nonspeaking young man who, through the use of letter boards, found a voice to express his thoughts, feelings, and desires autonomously. This was a breakthrough that resonated deeply with our desires for Kaleb. Inspired by this newly discovered possibility, my husband reached out to Growing Kids Therapy Center in Herndon, Virginia, to schedule Kaleb’s first appointment, marking a pivotal moment in his and our lives. That day is forever ingrained in our hearts and minds. Witnessing Kaleb answer age-appropriate questions on the letter board filled me with an overwhelming sense of joy and even more, hope. It was a moment of clarity, a realization that we had found the key to providing him with robust communication and a pathway to independence. Due to this experience, I felt compelled to extend this opportunity to other families and nonspeakers who, like us, longed for authentic communication and connection. I was also driven by a conviction to make a difference in the lives of those navigating similar journeys.

Rebekah Carmichael-Austin Submitted photo

What skills are required to communicate with a nonspeaker or unreliable speaker? I firmly believe in the
principle that “practice makes permanence.” Through consistent practice and reinforcement, individuals can lead to lasting and meaningful progress. I understand that mastering purposeful motor movements may pose some challenges, but with patience, persistence, and encouragement, individuals can develop the skills necessary to communicate. Another necessary approach is to provide age-appropriate lessons. By providing age-appropriate lessons we create a supportive environment that fosters success. Our lessons are designed to be engaging to our spellers. Engaging lessons also help with regulation. With purposeful motor movements, appropriate and engaging cognitive lessons, and lots of practice, the nonspeaker is learning the skills necessary to communicate. They are turning the purposeful motor of pointing to letters on a letterboard into an automatic movement. When the purposeful motor movement becomes automatic this is when they achieve autonomous communication and move from a letterboard to a keyboard. The skills we use and our approach is rooted in the belief that every individual has the inherent capacity to communicate and connect with others. We strive to empower nonspeakers to find their voice and share their unique perspectives with the world.

What do you like the most about what you do? Working with spellers is a privilege that has brought immense fulfillment to my life. Every interaction with nonspeakers and unreliable speakers fills me with a sense of awe at their unwavering dedication to communicating through letter boards. Their perseverance in the face of challenges is truly humbling and serves as a constant reminder of the strength of the human spirit. Witnessing the joy that shines on the faces of their families as they witness their loved ones’ progression is an experience beyond words. It’s a testament to the deep impact that effective communication can have on individuals and their loved ones. Being a part of their journey, however small, is a privilege I cherish deeply. The connections they create are forged through human connection and understanding. In their pursuit of autonomous communication, they teach me invaluable lessons about patience, empathy, and the power of perseverance. They also remind me of the importance of providing an inclusive and compassionate society where every voice is heard and valued.

How do you measure the progress you make with individuals? Spelling to Communicate has created a structured approach for tracking and implementing a speller’s progress. From starting with three stencil boards to gradually transitioning to more complex boards. The methodical approach ensures that spellers receive the necessary support and guidance at each stage of their spelling journey. We begin on three stencil boards or sensory boards and once the speller is 80% to 90% accurate with little to no prompting then you know they are ready to move to the 26-letter stencil. There are motor challenges when transitioning to the 26-letter stencil. The smaller letters and increased complexity pose new obstacles that are overcome with practice and engaging lessons. The 26-letter stencil often marks a significant breakthrough in communication. The realization (that) 26 letters equals infinite possibilities is truly profound. As a practitioner, we focus on high-level accuracy and a significant reduction in prompting before progressing further. This is because we are focused on autonomous communication. It must be the speller’s thoughts and feelings and not our own. Like with the three stencil boards, the goal is 80% to 90% accuracy with little to no prompts, before moving from the 26-letter stencil to the laminate board and the same when moving to the keyboard. So the speller’s progress is measured by their accuracy and the minimal use of prompting — their motor movements have become automatic, meaning the need for prompts diminishes.

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