Season 2 Transcripts

Matt: Hi. Welcome back to Mollynook Podcasts, I’m your host Matt Wilkinson. In this episode, I continue my exploration of AAC and turn my focus to the relationship between AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) and live performance. Joining me are Kenz and Margalit, two members of the Penn State Sign Language Organization, a student run org which consults with a faculty advisor skilled in ASL. The two of them explain the way that ASL (American sign language) has been incorporated into the For Good performance troupe, a theatre troupe which provides performers with Down syndrome the opportunity to take center stage. A key role of the Sign Language Org is teaching that group of performers the signs to specific songs. ASL is a complete, natural language that has the same linguistic properties as spoken languages, with grammar that is different from English. It is also considered a form of AAC in the sense that it can be used to augment, or as an alternative, communication but it is good to remind ourselves that this is a fully-formed, rich language of its own.


Two quick notes before we begin: I’ve made sure our discussion of specific signs is accessible to listeners (readers) but if you want to see the signs demonstrated when we’re discussing them, I’d encourage you to check out the video version of this episode on, which includes Kenz and Margalit demonstrating the signs. And on the topic of accessibility, a new page has been added to the Mollynook podcast site which will offer transcriptions of all the episodes. Season 2 is available now and season 1 will be soon. As always, thanks for listening (reading).

Matt: Hey everyone, how’s it going? 

Kenz: And then we’ll just like…  I am Mackenzie, and I am a senior here at Penn State, and I am the president of Sign Language Organization. 

Marg: Um, and hi I’m Margalit, I’m a sophomore at Penn State, um, and I’m the THON fundraising chair in Sign Language Organization. 

Matt: And you’re gonna be— are you leading the Sign Language Org next year? Or you’re leading For Good? 

Marg: For sure I’m gonna be taking over, um, For Good for the Sign Language Organization and being the primary like liaison between those two things, um, but we haven’t had elections yet for Sign Language Organizations so we’ll figure all that out later in the year. 

Matt: Cool. Well, a good place to start, then, is talking a little bit about what the Sign Language Org is and maybe how you guys got involved with it. 

Kenz: Sure. So, I entered Penn State as a freshman Communication Sciences and Disorders major which, is a big word for speech therapy, and they had this class offered to take, which was Deaf culture, and I just became really intrigued with Deaf culture and about the language of American Sign Language. I had known nothing about it previously and I heard through the CSD (which is the acronym for the big word Communication Sciences and Disorders) that there was a Sign Language Organization at Penn State and I said ‘no way’ I have to get involved. So I got involved as a freshman, knowing no sign language at all, and then I am now a senior and I am the president because I stayed dedicated to it and took, um, all of the outreach opportunities…  Marg, do you want to talk about how you got involved? 

Marg: Sure, um, I when I was in first grade, my teacher— his wife taught at a school for deaf students— um, and so in my first grade classroom we just learned, like, the abc’s and a couple of words, just because, you know, he was involved in that community. And ever since, like, learning the alphabet I always wanted to learn ASL, and then growing up I tried to teach myself a couple phrases and words, but it never really worked out, and ultimately one of the reasons I chose to go to Penn State for college and I looked into it was because I knew they had a sign language program, I knew they had a couple classes, um, and so when I got to Penn State— I’m a Human Development and Family Studies major, so not CSD, but— um, I knew I wanted to take sign language. And before— the sign language classes at Penn State, um, are really— not ‘competitive,’ but, they’re, like, hard to get into because a lot of people want to take them. So my first semester, I did not get into the sign language class, and I heard from a friend that there was a sign language club, I was like, ‘oh, well I have to join that,’ um, and so I’ve been involved since I was a freshman and now I’m in ASL 3 this semester. 

Matt: It’s nice to hear that it’s ‘competitive’ — that means there’s a lot of interest in learning sign language, which I think is really important. I also think it’s really cool that your— that you learned it in first grade, I think that’s also really important. I’d love to see sign language more commonly taught in elementary, middle, and high school. And then, let’s move, I guess from Sign Language Org into, um, what’s the connection between For Good and the Sign Language Org? 

Kenz: So, I got involved with For Good very early on when I joined Sign Language Org, which to say, I was nervous because we were going to be ‘quote, unquote’ ‘teaching’ the individuals sign language to these songs and— now, sign language, going back to that really quickly, Sign Language Org always just likes to promote the fact that we’re trying to spread Deaf culture and deaf awareness because this is not our first language, and we should be respectful to it, and we are just trying to provide awareness to the community. Marg, do you want to jump in about your experience? And then.. 

Marg: Sure, yeah, um, I— my first semester, I have a friend who is from State College, she went to State College High (I believe is the name of the high school) and she was involved in Best Buddies, um, which I was also involved in, in my high school. And she told me, like, there’s this group of performers, they all have Down syndrome, like, let’s go see them. And I went and it was so cool, I loved it, it was so much fun, and I at that point I wasn’t involved in Sign Language Organization, um, so it was actually perfect because I knew that I still wanted to be involved with something similar to Best Buddies in college, and I knew I wanted to learn sign language, so this was actually like the perfect match. And I remember the first time we all signed— or some people were singing and some people were signing— For Good, the song ‘For Good,’ and it was almost, like, magical. Like, everybody just singing and signing together. It was so fun.

Matt: I was just gonna say, I am— cause I did For Good in high school, um, as a peer volunteer— and then after I graduated I stopped doing For Good just because I ended up with a lot more work and school than I expected, but I went to see it the first time they, uh, incorporated sign language and it was like… it’s such a powerful experience realizing, like, oh: this is something for everyone now. Something just really quickly, to that point, too, that I thought was really cool is, I read this recently in an article— so you guys also are interpreting the signs alongside the For Good troupe, um, underneath the stage, like, on the ground in front of it, and I just read an article about sign language interpreters, when they’re doing performances they’re not performing they are providing that service to those, uh, who need— who are using ASL. So that’s really— I think it’s a good thing to clarify. And it’s also just kind of a neat thing. 

Kenz: And I just had to add on, um, it is also just a great way for those, maybe in the troupe, who have a harder time expressing their communication needs out loud and voicing it, they’re able to sign along with the songs, and it’s just amazing to see how that comes together and they’re able to do that. 

Matt: Yeah that’s really cool. Actually it’s funny that you brought that up, too, because this, um— I’m hoping that for this first, like, batch of podcasts for the new year we’re going to focus a little bit more on AAC, sign language being a form of AAC, so that’s also a good point. It’s— it’s cool that performers are also learning sign language so they might be able to use it themselves. Let’s even get more focused now, uh, and talk about interpreting. Do you guys, off the tops of your heads, maybe list some of the songs that, uh, the Sign Language Org has interpreted and then taught to the performers before? 

Marg: Yeah, um, last— I know the, the semester that I was most involved with, recently, it was ‘Happiness’ from Charlie Brown, um, ‘Oh What a Beautiful Morning’ um, from Oklahoma I believe, and, um, ‘For Good’ from Wicked. And I don’t know, Kenz, you’ve been in the troupe much longer than I have, so I don’t know if there are any others? 

Kenz: Um, For Good was definitely one that has always been the biggest— but I when I started and I took over for a previous president, Dana, is when I really started focusing in on all the songs, was Happiness. And I just love that. 

Matt: Yeah I think that’s all of them, actually. I think you— uh, and I think the— one of the other cool things about switching from in-person to Zoom, because of the pandemic, has been seeing sign language even more integrated into the For Good performances. So let’s talk about approaching them and, um, interpreting them. What does that process look like? 

Kenz: Right. So, again, I always preface this with, we’re hearing individuals just trying to spread awareness about the language with the most— utmost— respect, um, so as a hearing individual and as Marg said, she’s taken the ASL classes, I’ve taken both ASL classes with professor Sommar Chilton, who at the time was the only professor on campus teaching American Sign Language; and now we have Shasta who is a deaf professor on campus, I haven’t gotten the chance to meet her yet, super amazing. But I TA’d for American Sign Language as well, and we really focus on the grammar. So we approach the songs by first running through and reading all the lyrics, and we just write them out and then underneath every line we take those and we rewrite them in the ASL grammar, which is that ‘Topic-Comment’ structure; because we want to establish and set up the time that we’re in, if it’s in the past, if it’s in the present, and so on. 

Matt: Cool. That’s actually really interesting, I’d like to just talk quickly more about that, like, could you give an example of a sentence, uh, maybe from one of the songs, and then how you restructure it to fit into ASL’s grammar? 

Kenz: So, the one of the lines that I wrote down was from ‘Happiness’ when it says, ‘telling the time,’ we’re not going to be like, ‘telling’ the time, we do (sign) time and then look at it. So that was one that I thought of, and the same thing with ‘catching a firefly and setting it free,’ we have to first establish that there is a firefly before we can catch the firefly, so we say ‘firefly, catch.’ 

Marg: Yeah. That’s another thing— like, we’re not— when we translate the songs, it’s not like literal. Like, you’re not, um, it’s not like, ‘tell.’ Like, if you were gonna say, ‘telling’ and you would touch your, um, index finger to your mouth, like, you’re not ‘telling’ (speaking to) the time, it’s more like that sentence means, like, you’re looking at the time— so you have to think about what each line is actually— the meaning of each line— rather than just the literal words.

Kenz: Yeah.Because for every english word or sentence, there’s not a specific sign. So we’re translating it to what it would be in American Sign Language. 

Matt: Yeah. That’s so— this is actually— this leads right into my next bullet point I have written down which is, um, the literal meaning or, like, the literal translation versus the, um, idea behind it. The obvious one that I know is ‘for’ ‘good’ (signs: ‘for’ and ‘well’) right? But that’s not how you would, uh, sign the idea behind ‘for good’ um, so how do you approach that? How do you try to maintain the meaning of the song while also keeping it accurate, um, within ASL?

Kenz: So… that is, like, um, how you just did like the ‘for’ ‘good’ — in a sense, translating to American Sign Language, we’re trying to say that— that line is like, ‘because I knew you,’ like, ‘I’ve been changed for good,’ which basically is meaning, ‘for the better’ like, ‘for improvement,’ (signs: for the better). So we’re trying to take more, like, signs that are— yeah, Marg, do you know what I’m trying to say? 

Marg: Yeah I think so. I think, um, we’re trying to— you know as interpreters, your— the goal is to provide the best possible translation, um, to convey— because you know, if we as hearing individuals are sitting there listening to the song, like, when we’re listening the song ‘For Good’ we’re not, um, hearing, you know the literal meaning. It’s a song about friendship, it’s a song about the impact you’ve had on someone’s life, um, and so instead of having, like, the words up for interpretation, I guess, we— I think our goal is to convey, like, the emotional meaning of the song through sign language as well. 

Matt: I’m also curious, Dana mentioned this like three years ago (maybe more) uh, when I talked to her about this for something else, sometimes it seems like these signs— and sign language is a cool language too because a lot of times the signs themselves feel very intuitive, like once you know it you’re like, ‘oh of course,’ right? 

Kenz: Yeah

Matt: Um, so when Dana was talking about um coming up with some of the signs, she was talking about ‘through a forest,’ or something— I forget the exact song—(Kenz does sign for forest) yeah, and it’s cool, I— I don’t— I usually don’t use video for these, I probably won’t for this one, so do you want to describe what you’re doing? 

Kenz: Yeah, so for this, the sign is ‘forest’ which— Marg do you remember exactly which line that is? 

Marg: it’s like, ‘halfway through the woods,’ or something like that? 

Matt: Yeah that’s it. 

Kenz: Like, the woods obviously, like, because you can do many trees like this, or you can animate it like in lieu of where the music is still continuing to go. Like, we’re still continuing with our songs ‘halfway through the woods,’ and she just keeps— like, she holds that note out, so that’s essentially what we’re doing. And just make it more animated to follow along with the line. 

Marg: If people are just listening to this, like, Kenz has her, um, her right arm— she has it upright, um, like a tree— like standing up like a tree— and then it moves past her, and, like if you’re just looking at it, it looks like you’re— the person— is traveling through the woods. So I feel like, um, it’s very artistic. ASL is a very, obviously, very visual language, um, and so it just— you know— emphasizes the meaning of that, while also, you know, making it a more enjoyable visual experience, I think. 

Matt: Yeah, that’s what I was gonna say. It’s like a really beautiful, uh, interpretation of that line, where it’s not— because— what she is doing, like you said, is each arm is a tree and she’s throwing up multiple ones (going) behind her as if you’re going forward through the woods and it just adds so much. It makes it a very musical, like, the way that we interpret music, it makes it a very visual version of that, which is cool. Same with ‘comet,’ I love how ‘comet’ is— (Kenz demonstrates comet: pointer finger moving in front of her face, with her other hand balled up like a planet behind it) yeah I think that’s very cool. It’s the pointer finger going across and there’s a moon behind it, or something— some sort of planet, yeah. Do you guys off the top of your heads, maybe, uh have any other examples of where you’re, kind of, creating a visual? Like an interpretation that’s very visually driven like that? 

Kenz: I have ‘Happiness’ up so— 

Marg: I was going to say, my— I think my favorite line of ‘Happiness’ and my favorite one to sign, I can’t remember what the exact line is, but it’s something about, like, taking a walk and holding someone’s hand and the sign for walk is: you have, like, your two hands, um, they’re all five fingers are out and you’re like swaying them back and forth like mimicking feet and then that line goes on, you’re doing the walking motion, and then you grab the other hand and like sway it back and forth, um, and I think that line is just the cutest because, you know, it does a good job of showing you’re taking a walk and then you’re holding someone’s hand. 

Matt: I had never thought about that, too, that’s like that’s a neat, um, example of that. 

Kenz: That was a line that definitely stuck out, um, to the For Good Troupe too, because they were like, ‘I love that! You can just walk and hold hands,’ and I love that line— so cute. 

Matt: I had a great time learning ‘Oh What a Beautiful Morning,’ 

Kenz: Yes! 

Matt: ‘Happiness’ seems like a very easy song to get a handle on—

Kenz: Yeah. 

Matt: Yeah, what is your approach, usually— I know we talked about this a little bit before— but when you have those really, um, abstract concepts being brought up, like in, uh, the Oklahoma song, like you were saying before, what do you look for? How do you break down, like, a very uh abstract concept into a real or easier to sign, um, sentence? 

Marg: Sure, I mean, um, I know I wasn’t involved with the, um, glossing— glossing is just, like, translating that written English into the written ASL, um, but occasionally in Sign Language Organization we gloss songs like, I think we glossed, ‘All I Want for Christmas Is You,’ in December. And, like, when, when it’s those tricky lines, um, that are long and abstract, I think the best approach there is saying, ‘okay. What’s the key meaning of this sentence?’ like, ‘what is this sentence trying to get across?’ um, and then you can consider things like setting up things in your space. ASL is really unique in that, like, um, like if you want to say something about like, I think in ‘All I Want for Christmas,’ — I’m sorry I’m deviating away from that Oklahoma song — 

Matt: That’s okay, yeah. 

Marg: But I think I— it was like, ‘hang the stockings above the fireplace,’ or something and that was kind of a complicated line, so, like, the first thing we did was set up a fireplace, like, if you draw out the space and set up a fireplace, and then you can set up, like, okay: here’s a rack, and I’m gonna hang a stocking, um, so I think you can use those unique elements of ASL, like Kenz was saying. How, instead of— you wouldn’t sign, like, ‘turn your head,’ but instead you can simply, like, physically turn your head, um, so I think it would be like, ‘okay what’s the key meaning of the sentence? What do we want to get across? And how can we do that using the unique features of ASL?’ 

Matt: Let’s talk, I guess, a little bit about, um, teaching it, then. Because the other huge part of this is, um, you know— interpreting the song and then getting it down yourselves— and then you have to teach it to another group of people. What does that look like, how do you approach teaching it? 

Kenz: So teaching it— because I always— like I have been saying, these people are gonna be like wow this girl is so repetitive, I try to come across as respectful as possible because this is not my first language, so I am trying to continue to spread awareness and teach you the best I can— so it’s completely different, I would say, when I’m teaching, like, the For Good Troupe versus when I’m teaching just Sign Language Org in general. Like how Marg was saying, ‘All I Want for Christmas,’ — the For Good Troupe just loves to learn the signs, so I just absolutely love that, but we also want to keep it simpler in a way, since, now especially, it is on the Zoom platform for them, so we don’t want it to get too confusing and overwhelming. 

Matt: And you have a huge age range, too. I think the youngest one is like, seven— 

Kenz: Yes! 

Matt: — and then the oldest and you have is, like, 27 year olds. So that’s a huge age range to, um, accommodate. 

Kenz: And to keep engaged. And so we want— that’s why we pick songs that we’re going to sign that will keep them interested— and want to keep them signing. So my approach when I teach something, I’m not going to be like, okay, so I’m not going to teach them the whole alphabet. I teach them in ways that I will help myself remember the signs; because I think, ‘oh,’ like, I remember ice cream is just like licking an ice cream cone— ‘I’m eating my favorite ice cream.’ I try to make it relatable for them so that they’re able to remember the signs. 

Marg: I think, also, as mentioned before, a lot of the signs— maybe not right away— but when you learn the meaning behind each sign, it can be very intuitive. Like, I’m thinking the sign off the top of my head is ‘change’ which we do for, uh, the song ‘For Good’ — like you, if you saw an interpreter or someone, who, um, uses sign language do that sign, you may not know what it means right away, but um, if you’re explaining it to someone, like, ‘oh you have one hand on top and one hand on the bottom and then you switch them,’ like, then they’ll understand. Like, oh it’s changing. Um, and like a lot of it, once you know the word behind the sign or the meaning, it becomes very intuitive. 

Matt: That’s so interesting. Well, actually to that point, too, this is a little outside— you (Kenz) did the signs for the CSD group— but that was also being created, that was generated by the the people in the class, do you think that was— that was cool for you because you had a little bit more influence over what was being done? Or is there kind of a challenge there, too, in terms of, like, when someone is creating the song on the spot? They could come up with a word that you’ve never thought about, or a sign that you’ve never had to think about before…

Kenz: Yeah, no it definitely— well first, I felt a little bit more confident because I had already taught For Good and I was like, I got this. I have CSD 497, I can do it if they ask me to do it, and they asked me, and I was still nervous because it was— although the LifeLink students, some of them are in For Good, not all of them are. And it was also PSU students who I never— who had never shown up to Sign Language Org before so, I definitely, always, get a little nervous before I do that, because I’m afraid someone’s going to be like, ‘hey do you know, like, two different signs for that,’ or, ‘is there a different way you can sign that?’ because I don’t want to confuse everybody else and I don’t want to confuse myself. But it definitely helped me, and it helped me to become more confident even with this semester. 

Matt: Yeah. I mean, that’s, that’s, uh— I couldn’t imagine teaching someone else sign language. It’s, like, very— I can’t even— I’ve been doing sign language for a couple of months, since, uh, actually this since August, so a while now, (kind of in a sense) uh I don’t think I could keep up with anyone else who, uh, knows ASL. Though it’s— yeah— it’s like I don’t even know how to describe it because it’s not even it’s like, you almost have stage fright when you’re trying to put the signs together in the correct— 

Marg: Yeah 

Kenz: Yeah I know that— yeah, go ahead Marg. 

Marg: Yeah I know this summer, I um, I was standing in line at a grocery store and a woman behind me was wearing a mask with a window, um, and so, like, a clear window so you could read her lips. Um, and I, I asked her, I was like, ‘oh where did you buy your mask?’ because we had to get those masks for my ASL class in the Fall, and she was like, ‘I’m sorry, I’m deaf.’ And so I asked her if she knew American Sign Language, but, like, it was so rocky for me. Like, I could— I could barely get the signs out. I got very nervous, um, like I’m always practicing sign language, um, and, you know, going to these silent events, but you really can get, like, almost stage fright when trying to communicate. 

Kenz: Yeah and it happens to everyone, I believe. Because it happens to me when I sign with my Deaf friends, it happens to me if a deaf individual comes to my work, and I’m like, ‘oh,’ like, ‘I can sign,’ and then they ask me something and I’m like, ‘uh I kind of, like, forget so give me one second.’ And I think the stage fright— it doesn’t come across as a rude thing, it comes across that you care, because you want to be a part of Deaf culture and this language. And ‘big D’ Deaf, they have— they were born deaf, American Sign Language is their language, and hearing people, for the longest time, have discriminated against them. So just trying to be an ally for their community, it makes them feel more comfortable. 

Matt: Yeah. I think we’re getting close to wrap up, but before we end, uh, do you either of you want to tell, like, I don’t know, a moment from teaching ASL or maybe interpreting a song that was very, uh, impactful or affirming for you in some way? 

Marg: Sure. I mean, I don’t know— that ‘Happiness’ song— and when, with the line, like, ‘happiness is anyone and anything at all that’s loved by you,’ I get chills every single time we sign that line. I don’t know why, um, I think watching, I mean I missed when we were in person and you could really stand there and see everyone signing together, but it’s just such a wholesome song. And seeing everyone learn together is so nice. 

Kenz: I have to say, probably last spring semester, which is when— the first time that I had taught everything was going to be performed on stage. So I was, like, very nervous. But it was so impactful to me because I sat on the chair in the front row and they were all lined up to sign ‘Happiness’ and it just, like… it happened. Like it’s just in the blink of an eye, like, it was over. And I had someone record it so I could go back and watch it, and, it definitely impacted me— but for the way that I taught it, for the way that it came across, or, because I’m hearing and I’m teaching American Sign Language, and I just wanted it to come across as, like, we’re doing this for the better of the community. Not— and not only for the For Good Troupe, but for the audience members who are coming to see it. 

Matt: I think what’s so, uh, amazing about adding sign language is that it’s a very— it’s kind of an advocacy point, for everything, because you never know who in the audience will benefit from having the signs being done on stage; it’s a great kind of way to encourage people to go home and look up the signs for themselves, or even just start thinking about like, ‘oh that’s comet, that’s cool, now I know that.’ But I also think it’s really cool because, um, I think people who have Down syndrome, you know, they also get discriminated against a lot. And I think a lot of times people assume that they know less than they do or that, you know, they’re not as intelligent, maybe, as someone else, so I think having them performing the signs along with the Sign Language Organization is a very powerful, um, move. It’s really cool, and it, um, it really hits me. 

Kenz: Yeah me too— I get goosebumps. 

Matt: Um, so anything else? Any closing thoughts? 

Kenz: No I just love how you just— summed that all up. When they look— for the first time and they, um, did it on stage, I was just so impressed. Because how you said— um, I’m going to graduate school for speech therapy and I will work with children who have Down syndrome so I am not only advocating for the Deaf community, but for individuals with Down syndrome. And I was just so impressed. 

Marg: Um, yeah, the same thing. I mean, I— um, I said this before, but I think For Good is, uh, one of, like, one of my favorite things I’ve ever done. I loved, um, being in Best Buddies. Always, I’m very passionate about accessibility, um, in all forms. People with Down syndrome use ASL to communicate as well and so I just love how it all comes together. And it’s so, even, entertaining! Like, um, I was watching the performance with my sisters and it was just like, it’s so fun! It’s so fun to watch. At the end of the day, like, it’s a performance. So yeah.

Matt: Hi, welcome back to Mollynook podcasts, and happy 2021. To celebrate the new year, I’ve decided to launch this episode as the first podcast of Mollynook podcasts season 2. In this premiere episode, I chatted with my friend Kirsten, a graduate student at East Stroudsburg University about her experiences as an SLP extern (speech-language pathologist) and with augmentative or alternative communication, or AAC, devices. In this episode, Kirsten references ACRES, an organization we worked at together which provides support to adults on the autism spectrum; and a class at Penn State, CSD 497 which explored how communication goals can be supported through theater and performance techniques, both of which one can learn more about in my other podcast series, Pieces: the ACRES podcast, and Mollynook podcast season 1 episode 1. And as always, thanks for listening.

Matt: Hey how’s it going?

Kirsten: Good how are you?

Matt: Good. Um, why don’t you just start by telling me a little bit about what you’ve been uh doing for the last couple of years? What are you up to?

Kirsten: Yeah. So I left ACRES the summer after I graduated with my undergrad degree in communication sciences and disorders and I went ahead and started my Master’s degree at East Stroudsburg University that following fall for speech language pathology. And I have been mainly up to just grad school. That takes a lot of time so that’s what I’ve been doing— and I finished all of my coursework in December and so now we’re on to just externships and I have to hand in one big portfolio, and I have to take one test, and then I’m going to graduate and be done.

Matt: Wow that’s awesome.

Kirsten: Yeah so not bad. Lots of school.

Matt: Would you mind quickly, just, in your own words defining SLP?

Kirsten: Um, so an SLP is more than just speech and language because, obviously, we know more goes into speech and language. You have to be able to hear, you have to be able to think properly, you have to have proper brain functioning, breath support to talk, um, means, modalities— that’s where AAC can come in. Um and it’s much more than that— it’s cognitive stuff, too, so anything from the brain to the diaphragm.

Matt: I would love to hear a little bit more about something you mentioned about one of your— one of the people you work with in your externship; which is somebody who really likes singing and, uh, musical theater.

Kirsten: Yeah, so, um, I’ll kind of prelude this too with the fact that it was just so meant to be that I had taken the class at Penn State that Megan had talked about and that, um, Krista Wilkinson, your mom—

(Matt and Kirsten laugh, Matt’s mom co-founded the class)

Kirsten: And I originally walked in the class thinking it was just a neurology class because I was confused with the codes and my counselor had helped sign me up and I’m not a theater person, I can’t sing— I’m tone deaf. (Laughs)

Kirsten: And with having that background I actually had this client as part of my practicum. So I was seeing clients in our clinic on campus while taking classes and being a student. So after their first semester of grad school, you start seeing students, adults, patients, kiddos, from the school in the clinic and so this was one of them. And he’s an adult with Down syndrome and he particularly had a lot of trouble with articulation and just with the nature of Down syndrome and the anatomy changes, articulation— speech sounds can be very difficult for individuals with Down syndrome. And so he did use his phone as an AAC device and had an app… however he wasn’t a fan of using it. It really wasn’t super functional for him and so when I first met him he had told me that he loves musicals and he is obsessed with Cats and he is obsessed with—

Matt: Andrew Lloyd Webber, right?

Kirsten: Yes. He loves Andrew Lloyd Webber. He is obsessed with him. And so I was like, ‘okay.’ Like I’ll kind of, like, feed that into the activities. So we were working on “wh” questions and inferencing and so I pulled up a— like a picture from cats and be like, ‘hmm what are they doing? They’re on a stage, it looks like they’re moving, they’re all doing the same move,” and I struck a chord with him when I asked him— I played a song and I asked him what song it was from listening to just a few lyrics and he started singing and he was… clear as day with his singing voice and I was like, ‘oh my gosh,’ like this is the perfect opportunity. It sounds kind of weird and mom kind of looked at me super weird but I was like, ‘so here me out— we’re going to work on articulation through singing,’ because the way that he changes his position, and he sits up, and he’s straighter, and he’s he has a stronger breath support, his articulation is pretty clear— I mean it makes sense because when you sing you over articulate so we called it like a ‘sing-song’ voice. Then I’d ask him to say ‘hello,’ like in a very melodic way, and he was working on that, um, through sessions and he became a lot more clear, easier to understand.

Matt: It’s so interesting how music, which I think a lot of people think of as just a way to, um, entertain— or like it’s a very emotional thing— can be used in such a developmental… um, I wish I had a better word than ‘scientific’ off the top of my head, but you understand what I’m saying? Like it’s being used in this this other wholly unique way.

Kirsten: It really is and there— there is a very, like you said, scientific way to singing. How I kind of touched on— you change your position, you change your breath support, you change the way you articulate, um, and so you kind of use that to break it down and apply it to something else and then build it back up again.

Matt: And that’s also interesting that you mentioned from earlier— into our main conversation today— because he was using an AAC device. Let’s talk a little bit more about AAC. What is it? Do you want to, um, break down the acronym?

Kirsten: Yeah, absolutely. So AAC stands for augmentative and alternative communication. So augment means making something greater by adding to it, so supplementing. And alternative, obviously, is using a different method. So it just basically means that you’re using some type of device, or object, book, there’s lots of modalities to AAC. To augment/to supplement the speech that you do have or to be an alternative method if you do not have any speech.

Matt: Uh, I had no idea that there were so many categories for AAC. Aided and unaided, high-tech/low-tech, no-tech

Kirsten: Yup. I’ll kind of go through— I have, like, a whole— I had to write a whole paper on it. Um, and as I had mentioned to you when we were messaging back and forth about this, I did have the amazing ability and experience to be a research assistant underneath Dr. Janice Light, and she works at Penn State, in her AAC lab. And so I have a lot from her specifically because she really has made some amazing breakthroughs in the field. So Janice Light breaks it into four components for the purpose of AAC and that would be: to communicate one’s needs, information transfer, social closeness, and social etiquette. So really all the things we communicate for, that’s why we have AAC. And then we can break it down even further into the devices, and what exactly it is. So unaided communication is defined as use of some type of speech, gestures, sign language, facial expression, body language, um, to communicate. And then aided, of course, is exactly what it sounds like; you have some type of device or some type of object— or something— that you use outside of your body to help you with communicating. And then it gets broken down even further and there’s dynamic and static and all— (laughs) everything. You can really get overwhelmed with it. But you mentioned devices, so we’re gonna stick to devices. And the really cool thing with technology and how far we’ve come is that you or I hold a device in our hands every single day that is AAC and you don’t even realize it, and it would be our phones because we use texting, we use messaging, we use snapchat we use ticktalk now and these are all different ways that we communicate outside of just using our voices.

Matt: Something that I find, um, disappointing— something that’s a little annoying about the way that I think other people view AAC devices— is there is a tendency to think that someone using an AAC device might not, um, be as cognitively developed as someone else just because AAC devices take a longer time to use.

Kirsten: You’re absolutely right with that. I mean, that is something that is a stereotype that’s kind of placed on individuals who use AAC, but it’s absolutely not true. I mean look at Stephen Hawking: he had ALS and he used an AAC device— and he had it attached to his wheelchair and he is well known, super popular, super knowledgeable, and he was really only limited by the fact that he couldn’t verbally speak, and then once he had the AAC device there really was no limit besides, yeah, maybe you have to wait a little longer for him, or he has to pre-record his speeches or his messages, but that is definitely something that we do struggle with. And, um, we do kind of have to counsel families. When they hear, ‘your child’s gonna be using an AAC device,’ sometimes families hear, like, ‘oh my gosh my child’s never gonna talk.’ That’s just simply not the case. Especially nowadays, like I mentioned earlier, one of the components is augment and so that’s to supplement or add to, or make something greater, so absolutely people can talk and have their own voice. But sometimes it might just come out a little different, or it’s hard to understand, or it’s just easier for them to use the device to have more complex conversations.

Matt: I remember because my mom does a lot of work with AAC too— and I remember growing up when Ipads became, like, very much more common in our day to day, like, in schools for example. That was just such a breakthrough for her and for AAC in general— I mean, I know a very popular AAC device is a sheet with a bunch of images on it and you can point to them; and the Ipad effectively doing that but adding in voice or adding in you can scroll, I mean, I would assume that would make such a huge difference.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Matt: With these episodes, with these recordings, it’s always, um, I feel like I’m saying things that are very obvious, but I feel like they still need to be said, and I just think it’s important to address, like, that is a reality. And being patient with people who are using AAC devices is just, like, very important. They have things to say.

Kirsten: Absolutely. Absolutely. We actually experienced this, I’m sure Megan has probably told you the story, and I know you met the twin boys at ACRES, um, who use their devices on their Iphones. They first came to us without using their AAC device and they are pretty low, um, verbally; and we really didn’t know where their levels were at and we were really confused because mom was like, ‘yeah they had jobs in California, and— and they, like, they did all this stuff,’ and we were like, ‘we can’t even get them to like say yes or no back to us and we’re really struggling to relate to them,’ and we really, really advocated for them to start bringing their Ipods— and, um, I just remember the first time that they actually used it without even us prompting and the one of them, I was trying to tell a joke to, just kind of like, get some type of response, and he, I think, was just like, ‘no. All done.’ And I was just like, ‘all right,’ like, hey— he’s intentionally communicating and he’s there, and he understands me, um, and it was just we needed that AAC to kind of bridge the gap and make sure that, you know, he heard me all along. He just really did not like me so that’s why he didn’t—

Matt: he didn’t like your joke. (laughs) Well that’s what I think is so cool about AAC is the more I’ve learned about it the more inventive it is. I mean, it— it covers such a wide expanse of different ways of communication, uh, I was watching a documentary the other day and somebody had— uh, the head pointer they could use to point to stuff. They had cerebral palsy and they could also use it to paint, and it’s like, what a cool way to, like, adapt an AAC device to allow someone to communicate in so many unique ways, painting included. It’s amazing the spectrum that you can get with them— from just your hands, to an Ipad, to etc.

Kirsten: Yeah it is really neat. I think something that, um, I had learned through classes and watching videos that I thought was so cool is how adaptive we can really get with AAC. And it can be very complex, um, but it can be very simple, and so I watched a video, that they used a button which we call, like, it’s kind of like the ‘That Was Easy,’ Staples button, um, but it’s called a big mac and so it’s called a BIGmack button and you can, um, program them to say different things; and, um, I mainly see them a lot nowadays— I don’t know if you, um, I forget the account— but it’s a it’s an SLP that has a dog and the dog’s name is Stella and she uses BIGmack buttons that are programmed to say different words and the dog selects them to communicate with her. Which is really cool but they also can be used, I know, um, you know not everyone has their use of their hands or their arms and stuff, and so BIGmack buttons can be fastened to a wheelchair and you can use the side of your head to press it to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and all of that stuff. So it is really cool how functional yet diverse, and how adaptive, it can be.

Matt: Well that’s what I was going to ask, is, what’s one of the more— most unique AAC devices you’ve encountered? is that—

Kirsten: Yeah. Um, it’s— it’s kind of hard because they’re all so unique to the individual and so, um, I think definitely the coolest thing to experience was that I did, um, get to see a Tobii Dynavox being used. We had practiced this through the class at Penn State with AAC, to do eye gaze, so you don’t actually have to use your hands on anything. Um, it focuses and calibrates to your eyes, and it will track your eyes across the screen, and then you stare at whatever you’re selecting for, I think, three seconds. Um, and it’ll select it and that’s something that’s a lot harder than you think it is, and you’re calibrating a device to track your eyes and then you’re using that, um, and that was super, super complex, but so cool and there was just so much access to a lot of things because it’s a very high tech device so you can get onto the internet on that device, you can have your email set up, you can have text messages set up, you have pages, and pages, and pages, and pages that just keep going of language and options. I guess most unique as in, like, something not conventional, um, would actually be an experience that I had this semester working in the clinic. I had a little kiddo diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and he was verbal and he did have some words, um, but a pretty limited vocabulary. And it was really hard to understand him sometimes, and so he would sometimes say he wanted the blue egg that we were working with and he would just say, ‘ooh, ooh,’ so you didn’t really know what he was saying. And mom was like, ‘yeah he has this PECS book that like his therapist once used, and they used it in school, but like, I don’t understand it, and it didn’t really work for us,’ and I was like, ‘okay PECS book is a form of AAC.’ And so it’s kind of a binder and it has velcro on the front and then inside there’s pages, and pages, of like, laminated pictures or line drawings with words on them, um, that you pull out and you can velcro to the front to create a sentence or a message, um, so she went ahead and brought that in for me and I spent the weekend endlessly cutting out these little squares and laminating and velcroing them onto pieces of paper to add to his book for him, and we didn’t necessarily use the book but we took out the phrase I wanted then I had, um, an activity that he loved with different colored easter eggs. And you’d open them up and there’d be some things— some little tiny object— and he loved opening up and guessing what the object would be so I pulled out a ton of colors and we used blocks like little, um, like, foam dice that I had and I stuck the pictures onto the blocks because I wanted him to say a three word sentence, but I also applied the picture to it, um, and so that was still considered AAC because he’s still using those blocks with the pictures on it to structure out a sentence and select; and so he would tap the block, um, corresponding to the word and say— so he’d say, ‘I want,’ and then we would practice with different colors and stuff. And I nearly fell on the floor the first day that he wanted my attention and I was focusing on the mom and the supervisor who was in the room having a conversation with me and he just very boldly was like, slamming the block and was like, ‘I want egg.’ (laughs)

Matt: That is like— I love hearing these stories of like, inventive ways of connecting with the people that, uh, you’re working with. That’s so cool.

Kirsten: Thank you.

Matt: It sounds like you spent a lot of time cutting out, um, squares.

Kirsten: I did spend a lot of time, um, but when it comes to my clients, and I think any SLP can relate, we’re willing to go above and beyond to make sure that they have means to communicate— and he was just one kiddo that was really struggling and weighing heavy on my heart, that mom was just kind of, at like, a tough block in her road, where she was like, ‘I just can’t communicate with him fully and he wants help and I know he wants help but he’s not communicating it,’ um, and so that was something that we used that she was starting to be able to use at home. Just because he, it was something that included all sentences, he could see it he heard me model it, he could touch it, and feel it, um, and it was a visual to him, and so it was helpful for him to break down a sentence, which can be overwhelming, to three different parts, and like you said, it’s— it’s unique. And it’s functional, and so that’s how cool AAC is.

Matt: That is really cool. And it kind of brings up another question I have, which is how do you, um, how do you like figure out the best, uh, type of device to use for a certain person? Like what’s that process look like? Because it sounds like he’s not using an Ipad.

Kirsten: Um it is— it can be a long road, um, so when you initially take on an individual client or patient onto your caseload, um, you obviously go through a plethora of assessments. If needed, um, if they’re not diagnosed with anything, or if they don’t have kind of a baseline of what their skills and abilities are, um, and where their strengths are, you start to do a ton of assessments. And so with AAC that can kind of look different, um, but it’s kind of, almost, like a trial and error period. So it’s a holistic approach. You kind of look at the family, and you look at what they need, you look at the individual and what they need, or what might work best for them at the time. So this little kiddo that I had shared about, he absolutely can use an Ipad, um, but mom had said he really wasn’t there and he could verbalize when he wanted or needed something, you just had to kind of get used to the sounds that he was making for certain items so he didn’t really need something super high-tech because we were just working on a lot of core vocabulary and just carrier phrases like the ‘I want’ and then again, trial and error, and this is something that, um, we get trained on through school. Especially going towards the higher-tech devices, um, you actually go ahead and write grants into different companies that make these devices, so you go ahead and write a grant in to Tobii Dynavox and you say, ‘hey I want to try out this device with my client, will you send us a device, and kind of grant us access to it for a specific amount of time to see if it’s the right fit for this person,’ and so it can be a long process if you’re trying out different devices and stuff, and sometimes, like with my little kiddo, he didn’t necessarily need something super complex at the moment. It was just something that we were using to augment his communication and to really just structuralize, um, what we wanted. Which was ‘mean length of utterance,’ so we wanted him to create more sentences that were longer than just ‘want’ or ‘help.’

Matt: Cool. I think that’s really interesting. I have this as my last note… it just says, ‘any other interesting stories from the field?’ is there something that stands out to you that you found was particularly cool or, um, I don’t know— affirming in some way, or life-changing, maybe?

Kirsten: Um, I mean a lot of— a lot of the stuff that you learn once you’re seeing clients, um, or out on externships, is just so different. It’s so nice to learn hands-on. And I think my most recent and my biggest accomplishment that was super affirming, like, ‘yes. Okay. I know what I’m doing, and this is why I’m here, and this works,’ was when I had that little kiddo and we used the blocks and it was just something so simple but it was such a huge breakthrough. Um that he was all of a sudden initiating, and he was using his voice, and it was clear, and he had the words there, he just needed to get them out. Um the most rewarding was that mom really saw how much he was progressing and she looked at me with, like, tears in her eyes, and was like, ‘oh my gosh, like, he can do it, like he’s fully capable of communicating with me.’ It just took a little creativity. And she was like, ‘I just need you to stay in the area. Can you work in the area? Can I hire you? Can you reach out to me once you graduate?’ and so I think just kind of seeing the kid breakthrough and then mom be so grateful was just kind of affirmative of like, this is why we do what we do, and this is why, um, I love something that facilitates the creativity, and uniqueness, and everything that we do.

Matt: Yeah that’s so cool. It’s— you’re basically giving someone a voice, which is really incredible.

Kirsten: It is. I think you make a really good point— we don’t even realize it. And we don’t even realize how much we rely on just our voices or our phones, or whatever we may use to communicate. Um, I guess kind of adding on to your last question, I do… like, a personal experience that I was just like, ‘AAC is just for everyone, and it works, and you can tie it in,’ um… but unfortunately this summer my grandma fell really ill and she was in the ICU and when she was intubated, um, obviously that causes trauma to your throat and stuff. And then when she woke up from intubation she was trying to communicate and just couldn’t. And so my uncle had come home and they were just like, ‘I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what to do,’ and I was like, ‘give me your Ipad, we’re downloading GoTalk NOW and we’re just gonna have simple buttons, like, ‘I want dad,’ ‘I need a nurse,’ ‘help,’ ‘I’m hungry.’’ Um, and unfortunately she wasn’t able to use it because they had gone back in and she declined and eventually passed away, um, but I think the breakthrough, with just seeing how much AAC affects people, is just… anyone can really use it. And you know, my grandparents, who don’t know technology, my pap was looking at it and I was teaching him how to use it and he was just, like, so overwhelmed, but then I heard him on the phone that night with his friend and they were asking for updates and he was like, ‘yeah my granddaughter made, like, this this thing on the Ipad and there’s buttons, and you like, press it, and it talks to you,’ and he was like, ‘I don’t really know… but it’s so cool, and like, it’s so fascinating, like Carol can use it, but like, you also use it for kids who, like, don’t have voices.’ Um, it was just cool to see, like, the crossover. And just the connection, and the light bulb go off for them, and how much we can really use AAC in all settings. So maybe if I ever do research one day, I think it’ll definitely be like, maybe, training for simple AAC use and, um, like different medical floors— like the icu where you do have patients who are intubated. Um and they could totally benefit from just an Ipad that you can pull up with an app that has simple phrases on it. That would really help bridge that gap of communication.

Matt: Yeah absolutely. I think, um, I just started learning sign language a couple of months ago and it’s such a, um— I’ve never had to use it, uh, in any context but it’s such a cool and valuable thing to just have on hand— literally— um, because you never know, right? And I kind of I think it’s— it’s kind of lame, honestly, that schools aren’t teaching sign language in, like, a very basic way as a part of their curriculum because I think it would be great if we all had some basic understanding of this language that can be very universal and can include a lot more people who don’t have the option to use their voice.

Kirsten: Yeah I 110% agree with you. I— my mom used signs with me when I was a baby and we just used simple signs like, ‘more’ and, ‘cookie’ and I use that with my clients, um, and actually have family who’s deaf and so that’s the reason why I kind of started learning sign language, because, um, no one learned sign language to communicate with them, so no one really ever communicated with them until we had more access to technology. Um, and messaging, and um, it does come in handy. I mean, I was at my grandma’s funeral and it was her— it’s her sister who’s deaf— and so I was communicating with my great aunt, and it happened so fast that we didn’t even think to bring an interpreter, and so I met her at the door and I signed to her— and it was the first time seeing her forever, and I signed, ‘hello, I’m so sorry, it’s good to see you,’ and she just sobbed, because she was like, ‘you can sign,’ like, ‘you can communicate with me,’ um, and it is something so important. I’ve worked at restaurants and I’ve had people come in and ask for a table in sign language and I was able to reply back in sign language and it’s life-changing for them. That people know.

Matt: Yeah. No, that’s amazing. I love those videos every year of like a Santa Claus, um, and the— yeah you know what I’m talking about— just, yeah I think that’s super cool.

Kirsten: Oh yeah. that’s— those are the best; I instantly start crying when I see those.

Matt: Awesome. As somebody who knew a lot less coming into this, I feel like I’m coming out with a pretty good understanding of AAC and some of the ways that it’s used. So, I mean, definitely good job.

Kirsten: Thank you. I’m really glad that, um, this was something that you were so open to and I’m glad that you brought this up because I was like, ‘oh man I love AAC! Of course I want to talk about it,’ um, but yeah thank you so much and you came prepared with a lot of really good questions and I think those are good questions that, um, a lot of people have. So hopefully we kind of can use this to answer some of those questions for other people and it has the same effect. Hopefully.

Season 1 Transcripts (Coming Soon)

Coming soon.

Matt: Welcome back to Mollynook podcasts, I’m your host Matt Wilkinson. In the second episode I talked to my friend Colleen McDonough, a licensed music therapist, to discuss music therapy: what it is exactly, and some of the techniques that she practices in the field.

Matt: So you’re a music therapist.

Colleen: Correct.

Matt: What’s that title again?

Colleen: MT-BC. So it’s “music therapist,” with a little hyphen, “board certified.”

Matt: The reason I asked is because music therapy is a fairly new, um, practice. In the grand scheme of things.

Colleen: Yeah.

Matt: I would— I mean, this is just my assumption, but because it’s so new I’m sure a lot of people write it off as like, ‘oh it’s just playing a song,’ or, you know, hitting notes on the keyboard or whatever.

Colleen: Yeah something that our professors consistently prepare for— or help us prepare for— and talk to us about is… is this idea that we’re going to have to advocate for our field. Um, and one of my favorite professors, I thought she always put it the best way, in saying that we don’t want to aggressively fight for people to understand what music therapy is. We kind of have to show them, over time, in a way that we’re not, like, pushing people away. So we’re advocating constantly but we have to find ways to demonstrate what we’re actually saying; and research is a big part of this. So that’s, that’s part of the battle; figuring out ways to demonstrate why and how music therapy is actually effective. Um, and thankfully there are a lot of people who are working on that— working to show that, and there are a different side of things. There are neuroscientists who are trying to understand how music affects the brain, you know, so you kind of have, um, this really logical side of understanding it; and then you have the equally as important emotional side of it— to understand that on a human level— I think one of the biggest things for that is just as humans we are intrinsically musical. Even people who say that they can’t sing, can’t hold a rhythm, they’re tone deaf… so many people will say that to you, but you walk into the grocery store and there’s music playing. Some of the people who make the most money in the world are musicians. People go to concerts and spend thousands of dollars going to see these musicians; or they spend years practicing to be a great musician. Music is— it’s constant— I guess, just sort of in our lives. and there is no one that you’re gonna talk to who doesn’t have some sort of connection to music, you know? So that’s what’s really nice, is that music therapy can technically work for everyone on some level because everyone can connect to music.

Matt: did you— you might have, um— there was some writer who made the the point, I guess, that when it comes to the ways that we tell stories or the ways that we create art, the only universal art is music. Like, music, well it transcends language, and that’s what makes it so—

Colleen: Yeah everyone can find some type of music that they enjoy on some level.

Matt: Let’s talk broadly about techniques. When you go to school and then you graduate, and you go out into the world, what are some of the techniques, or what are some of the ideas that you take with you?

Colleen: Um, so one thing to understand— one important thing to understand is— is the overarching techniques that we use. So one is recreative: so this is using music that already exists and then, either, I’ll make— I’ll recreate— the song as the music therapist, I’ll have my clients recreate it with me, or we’ll create some type of new version for it; whether that means that we do a parody that uses the music and the structure of the lyrics, or we’ll do more of a lyric substitution kind of thing, where you take the idea of the song but you’re adding your own personal lyrics in, like the clients are adding their own personal lyrics in, and making the song apply to their situation or apply to their life.

Colleen: Yeah. Recreative is probably used the most often because it’s so versatile and because just the act of making music together can start to form that trust within, um, the music therapy relationship, because making music is a really vulnerable thing. People sort of, like I said before, there are a lot of people who, when asked to sing, they’ll say, ‘nope, I can’t, I’m tone deaf, I sound horrible,’ and— and to that I’ll always say, ‘one it does not matter how you sound. I don’t care, the rest of the group doesn’t care, you know, this is a completely judgment free zone,’ and you know it’s, it’s easy to say that as a therapist, I come out and say, ‘okay guys it’s a judgment-free zone,’ but you have to create that as a therapist— and you have to make everyone in that group understand that nobody’s here to judge each other, you know? When you open your mouth to say anything there’s, no judgment. And the same applies to when you open your mouth and sing, and the same is if they’re playing an instrument. We do a lot with percussion instruments, and any rhythm that someone creates, anything that they personally decide to do or create, is— that’s their music, you know? Anyone, anyone, can do that. Um, yeah, so recreative is really good. Compositional is— I’ve seen it work really well with people who are more creative because they’re a little more open to it, but some people need to sort of be… pushed a little more to embrace compositional music therapy, because the same thing with singing, a lot of people will say, ‘oh I’m not creative enough to write a song,’ you know, ‘my words aren’t pretty enough,’ or, ‘I don’t know how to write music,’ or anything like that, but it’s as simple as me giving them four chords and then they give me the words and then we put it together. And then you can add layers and things like that— and it often ends up being a really cool composition, and then along the same lines there’s improvisational. So this is just making up music on the spot and that can also be really daunting for people, um, especially when they don’t have a lot of prior music experience. But if you kind of work— work towards it over time, it can be really freeing. It can be kind of a release.

Colleen: I know that I when I first started my degree and they were like, ‘okay one of the main techniques of music therapy is improvisation,’ I and all of my other classmates were like… ‘I don’t know how to do that, like you you expect me to make up a song on the spot or, like, make up music just in the moment?’ And then when you realize that it doesn’t actually matter what music you make up as long as it’s part of that process and you’re kind of still working towards your goals it’s, it’s actually kind of a beautiful thing. It’s a really cool thing to experience other people, especially, um, kids. Kids are great at improv because you put a piano in front of them and all they want to do is kind of bang on it. And then putting their energy into something creative like that, you can have a lot of fun. You can really, um, focus their attention on something, um, and then you can, you can work from there and create something that’s more structured. And then the last one is receptive. Receptive music therapy, which has a lot more to do with listening and experiencing music, it can be very intimate. Where it’s just you and a client and you’re making the music, and they’re listening to it, and focusing on your words, and focusing on your music, or you can play it from a speaker and you have a group of people who are all doing some sort of systematic, um, muscle relaxation because that can be something really nice— a technique where you’re teaching your clients how to do how to use these techniques on their own— so part of it is, like, training the brain with music, I guess.

Matt: That’s super cool. No, that’s super cool. Let’s, uh, I guess talk more specifically now about your experiences and things that you did with people who did have intellectual and developmental disabilities— because that is kind of the focus of the website.

Colleen: So— so my experiences with, um, the developmental population in general was mostly at camp, but I also did one of my field works in a bilingual special needs classroom in north Philly. Um, so what was interesting— most interesting— for me is because I had done my first summer at camp, or— I’d done two summers at camp—

Matt: Wait can you quickly explain what the camp is?

Colleen: Yeah, of course. So Camp Huntington is a a camp for children and adults with special needs in general, um, developmental disabilities, intellectual disabilities, and for the most part they’re pretty severe, so Camp Huntington takes a lot of campers that most other camps that— that, um, work with people with developmental disabilities won’t take. Um, their behaviors are too extensive, that kind of thing. So all of us are trained in emergency, like, procedures— not just first aid but also, um, restraints and things like that, so, and— that and seizures and all of those kinds of thing just kind of happen on a regular basis, and that’s just how camp runs. But my experience at camp was I was first a general counselor, so I worked one-on-one with, um, a young boy; an eight-year-old, who, uh, was autistic and was non-verbal. And then my second summer I ran the music program, and then the third summer I oversaw all of the activity programs, um, and I should specify that I wasn’t technically doing music therapy there, I was running the music program as someone who was in training to be a music therapist. So I used music therapy techniques, um, but at no point will I refer to that as music therapy. I did in the classroom, in, um, in the special needs classroom— that was music therapy.

Matt: So— I guess, I actually am just curious, like, what were you doing at the camp, then? Like what was, um, what was the music program like?

Colleen: So, um, I ran the music program in my— in my big music hut, which was actually outside with a roof, and I had a lot of different instruments. So like I said before, percussion instruments are really good, um, to get people involved in music. Especially because singing can— can be difficult, sometimes, but most of the campers at camp, they were so ready to sing. Like all the time. They were ready for their solo and we would actually have, we had a lot of, um, talent shows. So part— sometimes if, if we had extra time at the end of our, um, our groups, and it would always be groups because there are different bunks at camp, and they’re all, kind of, put together at similar functioning levels. I use the term ‘functioning’ loosely just because people are labeled as high- and low-functioning, kind of, in the developmental disabilities community and I don’t always know how that term goes over with people. But it’s just kind of— intellectually and cognitively and in terms of how mature the campers were they were put together based on those things. So they were split up into three different main groups so you have the E bunks which were the really ‘technically low-functioning’ guys, mostly autism, mostly non-verbal, then you had the B bunk guys— all boys, um, but most of them were younger, kind of like adolescent, early 20s, that kind of thing. And then you had the G bunks which was all of the girls. So with a lot of the E bunks we would do a lot of different sensory things to music, so, um, it would be a lot about getting them to even, like, think about touching some of the instruments, because you’ll have certain instruments that have different textures and playing them, maybe, on their arms or, um— you will always, always, always have hello and goodbye songs in music therapy sessions for the developmental population because it provides structure. It tells you when the music is starting and it tells you when the music is ending and one of the main things in hello songs is you address everyone in the group so you, you call them by their name, you see, like, their attention level for the day, you might ask them how they’re feeling if they’re verbal, or if they’re not verbal, ask them to play how they’re feeling, if they can’t understand the question, then it’s more about seeing what kind of eye contact you can get, see what kind of interaction they’re having with the instruments, um, so it’s more about just— kind of going with the flow and seeing what they’re interested in doing with the instruments they’re provided and seeing what their reactions are when they’re given music stimuli. Sometimes I would even, like, if I had plastic drums and things like that, I would put paint on top of the drums because that sensory feeling of the paint was more attractive and would sometimes get them into playing the music a little bit more, too, because they had the added sensation of the paint. Or I would have them play guitar with me. I— the guy that I worked one-on-one with my first summer, I would play chords to a song and he loved strumming the guitar, he loved that sensation of strumming the guitar and he would put his ear right next to the hole and then I would sing whatever song that I was doing the chords for and they would usually be songs from his favorite tv shows or whatever, and that would help him engage more. So for some of the campers it was really just about them actively participating in something because some of them would go to activities and just sit there, you know? You couldn’t— couldn’t get them to make anything in art, you couldn’t get them to play anything in sports, you know, so music was kind of the place where they would perk up a little bit and pay a little bit of attention and engage.

Matt: Yeah that’s really cool. That’s so cool. That’s— I can’t, um, I can’t believe that there would be any pushback against music therapy.

Colleen: There was one young man who I worked pretty closely with, he would wear headphones all of the time and he would have music playing softly because he was really startled by loud noises, but in music, uh, he loved the backstreet boys. So we would take his headphones off and you— like— the difference was palpable. You you took his headphones off and initially he’s a little wary because he’s scared of loud noises, but you start playing some of his favorite songs and he’s dancing, and he’s playing different instruments, he wants a bandana tied around his head, he wants to be a pirate, it’s like you never saw any of these things, any of these, um, behaviors outside of music. So as a music therapist it was really reassuring and validating for me that, um, he was in the right place. You know, he was he was in a space that was, um— not only did the rest of us think it was good for him, that he genuinely seemed to be enjoying himself when he didn’t seem to find enjoyment in many other things. And that’s just kind of something that I learned along the way— that sometimes music therapy with different people is, it’s really about those really small progressions, you know? Like getting someone to finally play the drum, or getting someone to finally open their mouth and sing a little bit, or dance, or do something differently, or interact with another camper in a way that they hadn’t before, um, so I saw a lot of campers open up in music in ways that I didn’t— didn’t see them do it outside, you know?

Matt: Amazing. That’s so cool and that goes back to, you know, this is a recurring theme which I guess makes sense because this is all about art; art, music, theater, it just hits differently, you know? Like having someone talk to you or, like, work with you in a traditional therapy format is super cool and super important but music therapy, and music, and art, and theater in general affect us in different ways than that, you know? So it’s important to have both, or it’s important to have this other way of exploring ourselves as people and also exploring our emotions through that context.

Colleen: Yeah absolutely. And one of the big things that we focus on learning as part of music therapy is the verbal processing because it’s one thing to just, like, play the song or just to make the music together, but then after it’s done, to be able to start to vocalize the things that you were feeling— or why did you sing that note that way, or why did you decide to hit that drum then, or how did it feel when you were closing your eyes versus opening your eyes when we were all playing music together? If people are verbally able to do that and acknowledge some of the things that are happening, that can be just as important as what’s happening in the music you know? So I… yeah talk therapy is, can be really important for some people and sometimes music therapy doesn’t always work, but I think that the combination of the two is what really can change things.

Matt: Yeah that’s awesome. So, yeah, okay. I could talk to you all night about this.

Colleen: I think we could, yeah.

Matt: And there’s so much more to talk about, so I hope that we can do this again. Do you have any closing thoughts? Or do you have like a remark that you want to, um, end this on?

Colleen: I guess remember that music is a powerful thing, um, but that it’s also really just a daily thing— a really human thing and it it doesn’t always have to be, um, you know something poignant.

Matt: Hi. Welcome to the premiere episode of Mollynook podcasts. I’m your host, Matt Wilkinson. In this episode, my friend Megan McGrath, now a graduate student at UNC Greensboro, describes her research on student’s perspectives of how musical performance, dance, and improvisation can help promote valued communication outcomes in individuals with and without developmental disabilities. 

Matt: So I read your thesis— 

Megan: You did yeah?

Matt: Yeah. What’s so funny— and I could probably cut this in— there’s some video from you and me at ACRES, and you make a joke about, ‘oh you could just read my thesis’ and I was like, ‘I’m not going to do that’ and now here I am. 

Megan: There you go! 

Matt: So that’s mostly what I want to talk about today. Before you even started writing it, like, what was the idea that kind of launched you in this direction? 

Megan: Yeah. So I think, um, I guess the— the question, um, or the interest, looking into my thesis, was the idea of how, specifically, performance arts and improvisation can aid in social communication skill development and mastery for special populations. Um, as far as the methods sort of went, it was about a 15-week class, it was a college class, that students registered for— so Penn State has a program called LifeLink which is an extension of a high school degree for individuals with special needs where they will come to the college campus, experience college life, be able to live in a dorm, and learn various life skills while taking some introductory level classes. So this was offered as one of those introductory level classes.

Megan: Additionally, students from Penn State were able to register for the class, so in the pilot year that I was a part of, this included students from the Communication Sciences and Disorders major, I believe, one or two students from the Special Education major, and then one or two students from the College of Theater. And the structure was really unique in that we were all taking the class together, so it wasn’t the idea that the typically developing students, the students from Penn State, were graded differently than the students from the LifeLink program. Um, we were all considered on, like, a level playing field; or equal status within the class structure. Um, and so the class was about 15 weeks; we met three times a week for maybe 45 minutes, um, and we had a few different units within the structure of the class. So there was a vocal unit, there were two dance units, a hip-hop— so more modern dance, and then a more lyrical dance, um, unit. And then improvisation as well, so we started with the improvisation and that kind of helped to break the barriers, um, and allow us to express ourselves and be creative and kind of learn the structure of the class, um, and then those additional units, as far as dance and voice, were added later on. And then at the end, um, we practiced, as far as compiling all those skills and all those units into a final performance. 

Matt: That’s so cool. I know you didn’t, like, you didn’t structure the class in terms of— like you weren’t the one that was deciding which goes where, but you mentioned that improv played, like, a really important part in, um, kind of freeing people up a little bit— like get into that a little bit more? Like, what— 

Megan: Yeah— yeah. So, I think the really unique aspect of improv in and of itself is that it provides a structure, but then once you’re within the structure of the activities, it’s loose. So within one activity you play it the same way every single time, but the ideas, and the creation, and the way you build upon other people’s ideas, differs. Um, so while the game might be exactly the same, the outcomes are very different; and so what it does is, for a lot of people, um, who would be a part of special populations, they have a preference for routine. Especially, like, people with autism typically follow a daily structure that doesn’t change. So, I know a couple people who every Tuesday is pasta night, and every Wednesday is chicken, and every Friday is pizza— because that’s a structure that is predictable, and that provides a sense of safety or security in that predictability; because I think like a lot of us change can be very confusing or difficult, and even more so for people who are part of special populations. So the unique part about improv, specifically, is that it can be played the same way time and time again, but the outcomes, and the the information, and the way you respond to the information changes. Um, so it gives that foot in the door, as far as that predictability, um, but it also allows for the novelty of real life to come into play— in that life is not always predictable. 

Matt: I had never heard improv and, like, how it’s used described quite like that before. 

Megan: Yeah. Well, and I think that’s like the novel part of— of what this class was doing and and what my thesis was trying to bring in, like, this isn’t something that’s necessarily been bridged fully before. People— there’s music therapy, which is totally growing and a really cool, um, premise, but as far as improv goes— it’s not something that’s necessarily been looked at in depth as to why, um, it can work. And I think in my in my thesis we show that it can work, um, and hopefully, too, that for future data can show that it can work too. But looking at why, it really, I think, comes down to the idea that it’s predictable, but it’s not always the same. So it allows for that, um, understanding, and— and those coping skills to come into play which are so necessary. 

Matt: Yeah that’s so cool. And I think, um… so there’s a lot of, like, fun units that get brought in. You were talking about hip-hop, and um, like, the fight dancing and stuff— 

Megan: Oh the capoeira. 

Matt: Yeah, capoeira. I think, um, I think they— they definitely each serve their own function. Like, you can see with capoeira the, like, turn-taking that goes into that to make sure that you’re not getting kicked in the face, but, um, from a broader perspective, what do those units serve beyond just, like, the fun of learning a new dance technique? 

Megan: Yeah, absolutely. Um, I think it’s the idea that it almost feels like implicit learning. So you don’t realize you’re learning until you have the skill and you’re like, ‘oh my gosh where’d that come from?’ Um, so, for example, with the capoeira, but with almost all— each of the units, and each of the the kinds of, uh, subdivisions of the units have their own sort of skills that they address. Um, but there are quite a few things that overlap among all the different activities. So capoeira, for example: you need the eye contact with your partner, that way you know when they’re gonna kick, or you know when they’re going a certain way or another way and you can follow. Um, a big part of conversation is that back and forth, so it’s feeding off of your partner. So if you said, ‘I want to have chicken for dinner,’ and then I said, ‘I’m really cold,’ that wouldn’t make a lot of sense. But if you said, ‘I want to have chicken for dinner,’ and I said, ‘oh yeah that sounds really good, maybe I do too,’ um, that makes sense; and that’s a functional conversation. So if in that dance, your partner were to kick, your response would not be to kick because then you’d both kick each other, it would be to duck. Um, so it’s kind of implicitly teaching that skill of taking the information your partner’s presenting you and then understanding what to do with it. So it’s really physical, verbal, non-verbal, it interplays quite a few different skills, and, you see that with almost all the units. They might vary a little bit, just in that verbal aspects/nonverbal aspects, but for the most part there’s a pretty decent overlap. 

Matt: I like that idea of implicit learning. So then my question with that would be, like, with implicit learning, like, is it observable? Like when someone— when two people kick over each other’s head, does that actually translate into better social interaction skills? 

Megan: Yeah. So that’s kind of— that’s the question that everybody wants to know, sort of thing. Um, it’s— it’s the idea, like, ‘yeah. This is great, if it works in the classroom. but then what about outside?’ um, because that’s really the goal with everything we do. So whether I’m teaching a kid how to produce his ‘S’ sound, uh, in the therapy room, and all we’re doing is, ‘put your tongue up behind your teeth,’ or whatever, the goal is that they take it outside of that room or that context and apply it broadly. Um, it’s hard to know, um, from just this baseline study how or to what extent, I guess, it’s being applied, um, just because of the way the study was done and because this is kind of one of the more, uh, one of the more initial research. So that should come in the future, um, but what we do know is, like, in their reflections— which was how the data was gathered— so in reflection papers after small group discussions, quite a few of the students— both the students with special needs and then the typically developing students, the Penn State students— noted ways that they applied these skills outside of class. So the idea of, within the vocal unit, understanding, um, your head voice, or a voice that’s higher and a little bit softer, versus your chest voice, which is— it feels lower in your body and it’s a bit more powerful— and learning when to use those voices. So a lot of them said, ‘I know to use my chest voice if I’m ordering at a restaurant or going to a job interview,’ um, and then also things about posture that they learned within the dance unit, um, so the idea of standing up tall, which presents, um, a look of confidence. Personal space was something they talked about, eye contact is something they talked about, so it’s— we don’t have the statistical measures as far as observation outside of the classroom, but we do have the data saying they are cognizant that these skills should be applied in various contexts, and they’re trying to apply them in various contexts. So even just knowing that they should be using these skills outside of— outside of the the classroom context, and then knowing when to use certain skills is a huge foot in the door; and hopefully we can continue to get data as far as the authenticity of if this is actually being applied, but the fact that they know to apply it and think about applying it, is pretty impressive. 

Matt: I love that idea. I love that this is, like, continuing to expand and grow and stuff. 

Megan: Absolutely. Well, and— I think that theater is something that— that regardless of who you are, teaches you lifelong skills. Um, sort of things like, I was a very different person before I started a theater. And there were things that I learned and that I know how to do, and I don’t think I would be the same as far as public speaking, as far as eye contact, as far as non-verbal communication, and physical expression, and things like that, had I not done theater. So I think that the foundational, um, question was realistic to me in that I could see how theater had impacted me, and will continue to impact me, um, so I don’t think it’s far-fetched to say that it can impact quite a few other people, too. 

Matt: No, definitely. Something that I like to touch on when I talk about For Good is the idea of, like, in addition to teaching individual skills, the theater has this, like, it’s this very specific kind of, um, goal oriented program where every single person has to work together to accomplish something—

Megan: Yeah. 

Matt: The goal being, like, putting on a performance. And I think there’s a lot of like— like the camaraderie that is built through doing a performance is like nothing else; where not only are you depending on everyone else to do their part, but you’re, like, empowering each other to like get up on a stage and, like, perform in front of a lot of people, you know? 

Megan: Absolutely. And that’s not something that just anyone would do, so it really does take you out of your comfort zone. But what it does is supply that foundational sense of comfort and confidence through the teamwork aspect and— and you don’t all have to be the same, and the goal isn’t that you’re all the same. Some people are ensemble members, some people are dancers, some people are the leads… it doesn’t matter because we all come with different skill sets but we find a way to use those skills in a way that’s mutually beneficial for everyone, which I think is super cool. 

Matt: Yeah, no, definitely. Giving people an opportunity and seeing what— what comes out of that. 

Megan: Yeah. We’re hard to— to accept something that you see as ‘fun’ as also educational, um, but I think in reality that’s what’s most, um, concrete. Or something that you carry with you way longer— is the idea. You have those positive memories associated with it or, or you can laugh and have fun, like, that was one of the themes throughout all the reflections was the idea of— of, ‘we were having fun and so I was motivated to participate,’ and that motivation, and that intrinsic motivation— so the idea of doing it for yourself versus doing it, um… extrinsic motivation might be, like, ‘to get a sticker’ or ‘to be able to get a prize out of the prize box,’ or something like that. But the intrinsic motivation is— is the, really the best way, to learn. And to maintain learning. Um, and so I think that, like, the aspect of fun should not be taken as a negative. It’s really one of the most positive things, um, within the educational sphere and the learning— learning focus. Um, and it’s just making sure it’s a focused fun. 

Matt: Nothing motivates you more than the idea that you’ll enjoy yourself when you’re doing it.

Megan: Yeah. 

Matt: So I was going to ask— this is just, like, an aside. This is honestly— this is more just because I’m curious now, like, do you think, um, there are skills being developed, or like, there are, um, positive reinforcements happening for the Penn State students as well? Like it’s, it’s clearly not just like a ‘one-sided’ thing. 

Megan: Oh absolutely. And— and technically the question, um, in my thesis was how it affects social communication, period. So it’s more of a global design in that it was typically developing peers and, and students with special needs, and the data comes from both. So I think that, like, there’s a reason you take this class, whether it’s, you want to work with special populations, whether it’s because it satisfies a gym credit, whether it’s because you needed a Gen Ed, but I think that you see that, like, a lot of the participants in the last three years, that the class has run, end up seeing a lot more growth in themselves than they originally thought they would. Um, because not everyone comes from a theater background, not everyone has an interest in theater, not everyone has an interest in working with special populations, um, but I think that the— the underlying learning is the idea of how to communicate better, period. Um, and how to interact with the world in a way that’s really effective. In a way that’s— that’s based in a foundational knowledge. And so we all have different levels of understanding related to that, and we all have different levels of understanding our own emotions, or being able to read someone else’s emotions, or understanding what to do with that. Um, and so I think that a lot of times the Penn State students ended up feeling like, ‘oh my gosh like these are things that I never really thought about and now that I’m thinking about them, I can improve upon them,’ um and I also do think— I mean it’s not something that was necessarily measured— but that advocacy component is, like… is huge. I think in just understanding there are different kinds of people in the world, and, and being able to humanize these people or these disorders and, and understand that these are people who have similar interests, or, you know, also want to go out on their 21st birthday, or really want to make new friends, and like, those are things that are just innately human. And so I think it’s skills in learning how to connect regardless of, uh, intellectual status, regardless of level, like, commonalities in behaviors, or things like that. Like, it’s just connecting human to human, which I think really helps you as far as patience. As far as, um, learning how to modify your behaviors to help someone else succeed. Um, definitely teamwork, like it it’s almost an all-encompassing— but it’s— at the end of the day I think the whole entire thing is just, ‘how can I relate better to other people?’ 

Matt: Yeah. Well, I think that comes from an element of, like— so obviously I don’t do research, um, you know? So, like, when I talk about why I do Mollynook films, it comes from, um, my perspective of, like, ‘isn’t this so cool that there— that we can… isn’t it so great,’ I guess, maybe I should say, ‘that we have, now, these opportunities to, like, give opportunities to people who have genuinely really cool and exciting ideas,’ 

Megan: Absolutely. You know, and— I think that’s the value of— of us all being uniquely human. It’s the idea that we have a different set of interests or skills, and we all look at the world in a different way, and just because you look at the world in a way that might be more different or, or, or, influenced by a disorder or a disability or something, like, that doesn’t mean that your voice isn’t important, and doesn’t mean that your voice isn’t, um, revolutionary in, in what it can offer. Um, and I think that’s, like, and I think that’s where my profession is going to. Is the idea of understanding ‘person first’ which means I’m not just looking at your disorder, I don’t even need to know your disorder, necessarily. I look at you as a person. I look at your strengths and the things that you have challenges with, and I use your strengths to help improve on those challenges. And I don’t even like calling them ‘weaknesses’ because it’s not— it’s not necessarily something that will continue to be weak, it’s, it’s— we’re addressing it as a challenge. It’s something that’s difficult but it’s not unattainable, um, and we’re moving towards that. And moving towards that in a way that’s bolstered by a team, and a community that loves you and supports you and makes you feel confident. I think it’s something that’s— that’s really meaningful and definitely has a place, um, in practice and in research and in the future, so… 

Matt: That’s so powerful. I love that idea. 

Megan: Yeah. 

Matt: I think we’re— I think that’s— that’s good. I’m gonna stop the recording, um, thanks for… sorry I’m trying to do an outro or something. 

Megan: Alright let’s hear it. It better be a good one. 

Matt: Yeah. I was gonna say… it’s gonna get so sterile. Like, ‘thanks for sitting down and having this conversation with me.’ No, seriously. Thanks. This is really coo.l I think, um, I think I learned a lot and I got to like see a lot of new— I got to interpret things in new ways which is kind of the point of this, so yeah. 

Megan: I think, absolutely. Bridging the academic with the functional and and being able to interpret it in a in a real context is absolutely the goal; but it’s got to have that foundation, so, a little bit of both.