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Howard County Autism Society donates communication boards for nonverbal students to eight elementary schools

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Katie Gandy would watch her 8-year-old son play on the playground and wish it could be more inclusive for him.

It was nice to see him play with his friends, she said, but as a child who is nonverbal and has autism, he had to carry around his iPad to utilize the assistive technology to communicate with his peers.

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“He’d have the iPad on a strap around his neck,” Gandy said. “Kids with autism already kind of stand out, so I wanted something that could make him feel more included and feel more like his peers.”

Then one day on Facebook, Gandy, who is on the board of directors at the Howard County Autism Society, saw a picture of a sign in a playground in Michigan and thought it would be great for playgrounds in Howard County to have. The sign, called a communication board, mimics the assistive technology that many nonverbal children use to communicate.

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A student uses the new communication board at Waverly Elementary School. The Howard County Autism Society donated communication boards to eight elementary schools in the school system for nonverbal students.
A student uses the new communication board at Waverly Elementary School. The Howard County Autism Society donated communication boards to eight elementary schools in the school system for nonverbal students. (Nicholas Griner/Photo courtesy of Nicholas Griner, Howard County Public School system)

In late October, the Howard County Autism Society announced it would donate communication boards to eight Howard County elementary schools.

“This was a dream of mine for him to be able to play on the playground just like” other kids, Gandy said.

The first installation was at Waverly Elementary School in Ellicott City. The other seven to receive communication boards are Cedar Lane School in Fulton and Bellows Spring, Clarksville, Dayton Oaks, Ilchester, Pointers Run and Rockburn elementary schools.

A communication board displays photos, symbols and pictures that nonverbal students can gesture, point or blink at in order to communicate with others. For example, the board at Waverly has illustrations like “happy” and “sad” for students to express their emotions and pictures like “slide” and “ball” to show what they want to do.

Gandy said Terri Savage, the school system’s executive director of special education, gave the Howard County Autism Society a list of the eight schools with the highest number of students who use assistive technology in order to decide which would receive the boards.

“I’m grateful to the Howard County Autism Society for these communication signs, which will help make our elementary school playgrounds more inclusive for everyone,” Howard schools Superintendent Michael Martirano said in a news release. “Our efforts together allow our children who use augmentative and alternative communication devices to find the power of communication and the freedom to have fun on the playground like their peers.”

Howard County Autism Society Executive Director Melissa Rosenberg said the signs are believed to be a first for a public school in Maryland.

Two more signs are also being given to the playgrounds at Blandair Regional Park in Columbia, and Rosenberg hopes more signs can be given to elementary school playgrounds in the future.

According to the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks, playgrounds across the county are open to the public, but gatherings are limited to 25 people or less.

Once the pandemic ends, students at the eight schools will receive a short training for how to use the signs to help their peers who are nonverbal.

“We really feel like the boards have a lot of uses in our community,” Rosenberg said. “They’re a tool for inclusivity. It’s about breaking down those barriers for children with disabilities.”

Gandy also believes the signs are also a tool to teach the community, Gandy said.

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“They allow for people in the community to realize that there are children who use this technology,” Gandy said. “We run into it plenty on our own. Sometimes we get dirty looks from other parents thinking he’s carrying around an iPad to watch a show on, but in reality he’s carrying around a device that he needs to use for speech. So this also helps educate the public, too.”

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