My STEP Project allowed me to live in Columbus over the summer to volunteer and shadow weekly with Bridgeway Academy, a school for children with autism. I was able to connect with four different speech pathologists, and help them laminate, cut, and prepare materials for the upcoming school year. In addition, I was able to observe and participate in their therapy sessions and help use therapy activities to target specific goals for the children.
Going into the summer, I was convinced I wanted to work in a medical placement as a future speech-language pathologist (SLP). I loved the fast-paced, constantly changing atmosphere, where you saw new patients every day. This summer, I wanted to try to challenge my assumptions and see if I could envision myself working in a different setting. Bridgeway Academy is a school for children with autism and other developmental disabilities. As a volunteer and observer in the secondary school, I was given the opportunity to interact with fourth through twelfth grade students in a variety of ways, creating deeper relationships and having continual interactions with them throughout the summer to help them achieve their communication goals. After this summer, I could definitely see myself working in a school setting with children, especially those with disabilities. Before this experience, I was convinced that I would only thrive in a hospital environment, but after this summer, I realized that I also do well collaborating with educational professionals to create tailored goals for each patient and help them achieve these goals through play-based therapy.
I split my time evenly at Bridgeway Academy between volunteering and observing. While volunteering, I mainly helped the speech-language pathologists (SLPs) compile new therapy materials, sort them based on therapy goal, then laminate and cut them. When I arrived in the morning, this is usually what I would start out doing, and it was nice to be able to connect with the SLPs and talk about what kids were on their caseload and how each resource would help them. It was so neat to see therapy materials that I helped put together be used in real sessions. For example, one thing students with autism really struggle with is following directions and sorting things into groups. This skill is really important for them as they eventually go out to work in a vocational setting, where they will be asked to listen to an authoritative figure and likely have to sequence or separate various things. One material I helped work on was a table that was split into two sections with two different groups, for example, fruits and vegetables. First, I would laminate the entire page, then I would cut out little squares that each had pictures on them of either fruits or vegetables. Lastly, I put Velcro dots on the table itself and the small squares, so the kids could look at the pictures then decide which category it belonged to. It was so awesome to be able to see something I worked on actually be used in real therapy sessions, teaching kids how to follow directions such as “First stick on the red vegetables, then the orange fruits, and then the rest of the vegetables.” This is a valuable skill, especially because many kids will go on to work in a grocery store or some kind of market.
This activity stood out in particular to me because it made me feel like I was making a real difference. It was easy to see how from the day I started laminating these numerous cards, to the day they were actually used in therapy, to when kids could use these skills as baggers at the grocery, I was able to impact the children’s lives in a real and tangible way. Previously, I thought that working in a hospital would give me the most immediate gratification; I would see a stroke patient, prescribe them a diet that would help them not aspirate, and be on my way. In the school, however, there were more steps involved but it was neat to see how building the resource from start to finish and then helping kids understand how to use it in the real world was a worthwhile process. I really liked feeling like I was making a difference, even if sometimes it just involved cutting and sorting papers.
When I was not volunteering and helping create therapy materials, I shadowed four different speech-language pathologists and would rotate between them. They really valued me as a student and would talk amongst each other about who they had on their caseload that day and what activities they would be doing to ensure I got to see something new each time and participate in all that the field of speech-language pathology has to offer. I got to see a lot of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) use, which is something I was fairly unfamiliar with previously. Roughly 70% of students at Bridgeway used some kind of device or communication board to communicate, and it was the primary job of the SLP to know how to use these devices and train students on how to use them. I got used to using iPads and certain software to connect with students which was very new to me, but an important skill to have as our technology continues to grow. In addition, I sat in on individual therapy sessions, where we often played board games to target certain goals. I loved seeing how creative the school SLP has to be and what goals can be targeted simply by playing Candyland. Lastly, and probably my most favorite, was when we did co-treatments with either occupational therapy or music therapy. Most students at Bridgeway receive multiple therapies, so when we are able to combine and target multiple goals at once, this makes it more engaging for students and more efficient for therapists. I specifically loved when we would co-treat with music therapy; the students loved it and it was a neat way to target communication goals, such as maintaining eye contact, taking turns, and making appropriate choices.
Throughout the summer, I was able to build connections with the therapists and ask them countless questions about their experiences in graduate school, finding jobs, and what it is like to work in a school setting. They were brutally honest with me about the good and bad days that working in a school can bring, but ultimately, they all say they love their experience and getting to watch students grow. Many of them have worked for the school for multiple years and have developed relationships with the kids’ families and are able to see them grow up and go beyond Bridgeway when they graduate. Being able to see this continual growth is not something I would get in a medical setting, where I usually would interact with a patient three or four times at most, then never see them again. It really made me think about what I value most as a therapist and challenge my previous notions.
As I begin applying to graduate schools, they often ask about what your professional goals are and what you hope to bring to their program. Before this summer, I thought I wanted to strictly work in hospitals, and was looking exclusively at programs that focused on medical speech-language pathology. Following my STEP project, I feel like I have become much more open-minded and have begun exploring programs that offer a more well-rounded education for graduate school. By better understanding what it is like to work in a school setting, specifically with children who have special needs, I am able to see another side of speech-language pathology and use this to help form what my professional goals are and how I will contribute to whatever school I end up attending. In all aspects of my life, this experience has helped me become more open-minded and not judge a book by its cover. From now on, I will be less likely to rule out an experience based on prior assumptions, and more easily persuaded to give it a go, because you never know until you try.