New banners help autistic kids communicate

Point and Play banners enable non-verbal people to communicate their feelings and wishes. /Photo: Judy Macoskey

Autistic children who play in three of Mt. Lebanon’s parks will be able to communicate more easily, thanks to three new AAC Point and Play banners. AAC, which stands for Augmentative and Alternative Communication, is a way for non-verbal people to communicate without talking; this is often vital to autistic people, who sometimes find speech challenging or impossible. The banner project is the result of a collaboration between one local mom, one concerned citizen and one supportive municipal official.

The new banners provide signs and symbols for common words, including feelings (dizzy, just right, tired), actions (swing, play, rock), and things (car/bus, snack) as well as other useful words (together, alone, off). Nonverbal children can point to a picture of, say, a figure sliding down a slide to indicate what they want to do. There is also a sliding scale of energy levels, from Maxed Out to Sleepy/Tired.

“One of the things I don’t think people realize is that non-speaking children, unless they’re also co-morbid with an intellectual disability, their processing is the same,” said Tessa Watkins, Royce Avenue. Watkins, a web developer who uses the pronouns they/them, and their husband are the parents of a 4-year-old autistic daughter, Tabitha. Tessa Watkins also identifies as autistic. “There’s only a deficit in the communications part. It’s just the words they can’t get out.

“AAC is a natural part of how our household communicates with each other. Both my child and I will sometimes experience situational mutism, which makes it so we can’t actually speak, but we can still think and make decisions,” they said.

“Our autonomy or participation shouldn’t be taken away just because we don’t communicate via someone else’s preferred method,” Watkins continued. “To be inclusive and live harmoniously with each other, we need to learn how to understand all forms of communication. I hope that these banners at the playgrounds can introduce this idea in a fun way so that we all can learn and practice understanding each other better.”

The project began in August when Watkins saw a Facebook ad for the banners, which are produced by a company called Autism Level Up!. “I drafted an email for the Mt. Lebanon commissioners and included Keith McGill, the municipal manager. Then I went into one of the local Facebook groups and asked whether there would be support for this move, and that’s how I know Valerie Rose.”

Rose, a real estate agent who lives on Corace Drive, was interested in sponsoring a banner, which cost about $250. She said she was drawn in because she wants to be sure everybody has equal opportunities and feels welcome. “I have friends with autistic kids and I have a cousin with one. So, autism is always all around you. And the more you learn about it, the more you realize that there are probably a lot of people who are not diagnosed.”

McGill also loved the idea. “Having had a younger brother with special needs,” he wrote in an email, “and believing that the town has a responsibility to remove barriers where possible to make our community accessible for everyone, I offered to purchase a second banner using my personal funds and suggested that we loop the school district in as they also have playgrounds. Tessa quickly jumped in and offered to buy a third banner, and the school district was supportive.”

According to Kristen James, director of communications for Mt. Lebanon School District, “Our district has been included in many of the planning discussions surrounding the Point and Play banners that have been put up around the community. These are a great addition to the parks and spaces where many of our students play and gather. We will continue to support this effort as we can and would welcome any input from community members who would like to donate them to other spaces within our district.”

The banners are in three parks: Williamsburg, off Sleepy Hollow Road; Meadowcroft, behind Lincoln Elementary School; and Main Park, near the recreation center. The first one went up in October.

Rose has had firsthand experience with special needs during the time her ADHD son, now 20, was in the school system.

“Mt. Lebanon has been moving in the right direction toward more equality and equity,” she said. “I think that’s very important. These banners are going to help kids with autism to feel welcome. I know for Tessa that was very important because they understand the need personally, because of their child.”

McGill credits the two local residents for getting the ball rolling. “In my opinion it is a great grassroots effort, for which Tessa and Valerie deserve all the credit. I was happy that they looped me in and excited to see the banners go up and to see where we can go from here to continue these types of initiatives.”

Watkins hopes that the banners will get some publicity during April, which is Autism Awareness Month. They know a network of moms who will be interested. “There are many different circles who would definitely love to know about this.”

As for Rose, she attributes her contribution to just wanting to help. “I think it’s important to step up when you have the possibility of helping a lot of people.”