When speech-language pathologist Rachel Romeo was seated next to a nonverbal 10-year-old with autism, she created a visual way for him to communicate with his dad.

By Libby Ryan
August 29, 2019
OJO Images/Getty Images

Speech-language pathologist (SLP) Rachel Romeo was returning from a conference on a long international flight and changed the lives of the father and son seated next to her. The therapist and researcher shared the story of the “affirming experience” on Twitter and the tale went viral, touching the hearts of parents around the world.

The father began to explain that his 10-year-old son had autism and is nonverbal and apologized to Romeo because the 8-hour flight would likely be difficult for his child. But, “I told him not to worry, I was a speech-language pathologist with lots of experience with minimally verbal kiddos,” Romeo wrote on Twitter.

She went on to say that some “challenging behaviors began even before take-off." The boy was “screaming, hitting me, and grabbing for my things. The father repeatedly apologized, but did little else.” So Romeo asked the dad how his son liked to communicate and asked if she could try a different method: a communication board.

Romeo said she could tell the 10-year-old was bothered by screens, so she said, “I summoned my god-awful drawing skills and tried to create a (very!) low-tech board.”

She used principals of Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC), a term used to describe all sorts of ways to communicate without speaking out loud, to help the boy tell her and his dad his needs.

“And by god, it clicked,” said Romeo. “I made symbols for the things he was grabbing, for his favorite stuffed penguin, and for his dad. He took to it very quickly. I introduced way more symbols that I normally would, but hey, how often do we get an 8-hour session?!”

The SLP said that by the end of the flight, the boy’s behaviors like grabbing, screaming, and hitting had decreased “quite a bit” and that he was able to ask for what he wanted from his dad using the board. “The father was astounded–clearly no one had ever tried an AAC approach with him,” Romeo wrote. “I gave him the paper and showed him how to use it, and he nearly cried.”

Romeo’s Twitter thread went viral, gathering more than 100,000 likes and thousands of responses—some from parents who have been in the dad on the plane’s shoes.

“Sitting here in tears, thank you. My son had childhood apraxia of speech, and I understand those meltdowns born of frustration,” @skolsister commented. “What a wonderful gift you gave that young man and father.”

“When my son was taught simple sign language his meltdowns decreased,” said @cbetham. You’re right, he was beyond frustrated because he couldn’t tell us what he wanted. You are an amazing therapist.”

“The attention that our non-verbal, autistic son received from therapists like you changed his life,” Twitter user @drewbrown responded to the tweet. “Still non-verbal (and still autistic), he’s just starting his third year of college as an honor student with a perfect 4.0 GPA.  Thanks for seeing the potential in kids like ours.”

As for Romeo, she said that day on the plane reminded her why she chose to become an SLP. “This was the human desire for communication, pure and simple. To connect with another person and share a thought,” she wrote. “Communication is a basic human right, and I was overjoyed to help someone find it. What a privilege and a gift.”

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