The Malta Independent 23 September 2023, Saturday
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‘Mosquito, ear, doctor’ – boy with autism learns to communicate via special device

Sabrina Zammit Sunday, 14 May 2023, 09:00 Last update: about 5 months ago

A boy with autism has learnt to communicate with others via what is known as an Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) device, which enables him to overcome his verbal difficulties to make himself understood.

We didn’t know Nico could either write or read before he was provided with this device, the boy’s mother, Ramona Matthews, tells The Malta Independent on Sunday.

“I still remember how it was Mother’s Day and he wrote ‘happy Mother’s Day on his device’,” she said, visibly proud of her son.

On another occasion, he used the device to tell his parents that he was experiencing discomfort in his ear. “Mosquito, ear, doctor,” was the way he told them how he was feeling.

Nico is the twin brother of Amy, both now 11 years old.

The parents were quick to notice that the boy was not as responsive as his sister. Amy was producing smiles after a few months but Nico was behaving differently.

“We noticed how he started to flap his hands,” said his mother, adding that soon enough their paediatrician, who was following Nico’s development closely, had understood that the boy was presenting traits of autism.

“We took the news seriously, but it wasn’t the end of the world,” his mother said, who was aware of the condition from information she read online and through other mediums. Nico was around 18 months old when he was diagnosed with autism. One of the first thoughts the mother remembers having was, that when Nico starts going to school, he was going to have a learning support assistant all to himself.

At the age of six, Nico was referred to the ACTU (Access to Communication & Technology Unit) by their speech therapist to participate in a programme for the allocation of what was then a new device, the AAC. The mother said that the child showed immediate interest in it.

The AAC device allows people who cannot express themselves verbally to communicate. People of all ages can use AAC if they have trouble with speech or language skills. Augmentative means to add to someone’s speech. Alternative means to be used instead of speech. The good thing about it is that people who find speech difficulties can reach out.

Apart from pictures, when handed the device Nico discovered the keyboard function and was quick to get the hang of it. After this discovery, Nico was set to impress his family and his peers with the way he could use the device.

“He started to write and express his feelings,” said his mother, adding that they never even knew he could read. She said that he prefers to use this function other than the pictures and that he finds sneaky ways all the time to unlock other parts of the device without permission from people taking care of him.

Ramona expressed nothing but gratitude towards the Malta Trust Foundation for giving her son such a device, as it has facilitated Nico’s way of communication.

President Emeritus Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca is the founder and chairperson of The Malta Trust Foundation. This foundation has been around for eight years now. Among the services it offers, the foundation helps children who are blind/visually impaired or those who are on the autism spectrum. The foundation also offers services such as music therapy at their music school in Villa Bianca.

The use of the device has changed Nico’s life completely. Last winter, for example, Nico kept typing “mosquito ear” on his device. His parents could not understand, but Nico later extended his communication to “mosquito ear go to doctor”.

At this point Ramona knew that Nico was serious about this “given that he is afraid of doctor’s appointments”.

When she took him, the doctor found that he had a problem with his ear which made it swell so much that “all he could hear was the sound a mosquito makes”.

“He was so specific in describing what it felt like,” said his mother.

Apart from the help he receives from a dedicated LSE, Nico also has his twin sister who he can rely on. The two grew even closer during the Covid-19 pandemic, when they followed school lessons from home.

“Nico loves to whistle,” said Amy, explaining that it is one of her brother’s forms of communication.

Now that they are back in school, the twins have a bond so unique, that when Nico is in another room and Amy happens to hear him cry, she asks for permission to leave the class and go and check on her brother who might be finding it difficult to communicate his needs with his LSE.

Apart from school, Nico also searches for his sister for consolation when they are at home.

“He listens to her more than he does to me,” their mother said, explaining how if her daughter or herself were to ask Nico to do something, he would do it better with his sister.

“He learns a lot through her,” she said.

Ramona was worried that Nico was going to find it harder to settle without his sister in middle school. However, upon a visit to the new school he seemed excited as it is better equipped for his needs with sensory rooms among other things. She said that now all he does is type “new school” on his device as a sign of excitement.

Asked about how she deals with people who don’t know about Nico’s condition, especially when he has a tantrum in public, she said “you grow a thick skin”.

Ramona explained that nowadays, unlike earlier years she does not find the need to have to explain anything to anyone. She explained that when her son has a tantrum all she can do is wait for him and help him in the process of recovering from it.

“I wish I could just be in his brain for a little bit just to see how he thinks,” she said as she recounted the many small things he did and continues to do on a daily basis.

On Saturday, 20 May the Malta Trust Foundation will be raising funds during a television event to be held on all television channels in Malta between 11am and 11pm.

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