The View from Here – But You Can SPEAK!

A handful of the students we work with at Reach Every Voice have a decent amount of speech. We’ve learned, though, that many of our students consider their speech unreliable and will ask us to listen to their VOICE – the one they’ve found by using the letterboards. This is tricky, right? Our society makes quick judgements based on our initial impressions. If your first impression of a student is scripted, limited speech, it’s easy to make the assumption that this output is intentional and, perhaps, reflective of their cognition. It can be hard to reconcile how what is coming out our students’ mouths is in direct opposition to what they’re typing on the boards. Today, William and Ashna, who both are able to speak, explain why for them this speech is NOT what we should be listening to.


Can some of you voice songs and say something entirely different at the same time? Since I can, I’d like to make the argument for my superior brain. I’m autistic, not stupid.

The first time I met the principal at my school, I chanted ,“Hallelujah!” loudly in his face. Kind of putting a lot of meaning to it, he said, “I’m flattered.” If I’d had my letterboard with me, I would likely have said, “Trust my finger, not my speech.” Same as a Deaf person. I hate how my intelligence is judged by how I speak.

This perception is not helped by the nonsense that falls out of my mouth. Just now, while writing that sentence about Deaf people, I clearly said aloud, “The boy is riding a bicycle.” Total ABA flashback. There are no boys or bikes anywhere near me. That doesn’t mean that I’m stupid or that I’m thinking about boys or bikes. What it does mean is that I’m like a parrot on steroids with the world’s best memory.

That should give you a sense of why I type even though I can speak.


This is my voice. Yes, I speak, but this is my voice. Today I sound like a thirty-five year old woman who sits here speaking each letter I point to. WTF?! Tomorrow I will sound like a woman my mom’s age. WTF?! Occasionally, I sound like my dad. I’m no ventriloquist. I use a letterboard to communicate.

(In case you didn’t catch that, my voice is heard through the people speaking letters out loud as I point to them on a letterboard.)

The thing is, I also speak. The things that come out my mouth are mostly things I memorized in response to certain situations. Someone says hi and my mind scrolls rapidly through faces while I try to have my mouth form their name.

Too often I scroll through a few names until the right one comes out. If you only listen to my speech, you would think I don’t know anyone’s name. This is how the world interprets intelligence.

Sometimes my speech says one thing and my letterboard voice says another. This afternoon, my speech said “Yes” to mom’s offer to give me a snack, but my letterboard voice said, “I don’t need one.” Though she knows to trust my letterboard voice, I still saw her hesitate to trust what I typed. To be fair, though, I’m not one to turn down a snack. But aren’t we all entitled to change our routines?

Now that I have a reliable way to communicate, don’t take that voice away by trusting my speech to say anything more than what I’ve memorized. I sound about as good as a trained parrot. Talking and intelligence are not the same. Please show some respect and honor the voice I choose.  

Ashna is an ninth grader in Maryland who cares about doing good talking points for autism and rapid prompting method.

William is a fifteen year old guy who communicates by spelling and is navigating the second year of mainstreamed education.

Editor’s note: This blog was originally published at Reach Every Voice. Reproduced with permission from the authors and the school.

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4 Responses

  1. Serious question here. Why would someone want to use a letterboard rather than a vocal communication system that gives out whole phrases? I understand cost and availability but I get the impression some are choosing it over other options. I’m confused why.

    1. A letterboard allows the user to slow down and control their ability to point accurately to whatever they would like to spell. It is very physically challenging. A “vocal communication system,” which is typically on an iPad , could be considered an advanced skill, as it requires great motor planning to use. Many non-speakers, or, in this case, unreliable speakers, have also been diagnosed with severe apraxia–so slowly and precisely planning intentional actions, such as pointing accurately, are challenging.

  2. Shirley – my son Ben is away until tomorrow and I will ask him if he wants to reply to you, using his preferred communication device, his letterboard.

  3. I am afraid I cannot relate to the question “Why would someone want to use a letterboard rather than a vocal communication system” at all.

    Why do we need to ask this? Why do we need to understand?

    Can we not just note that they DO, and respect their wishes?

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