Success & News Stories

Jerome Shanaway

Speaking Up and Feeling Good About it
Ordering a soft drink on a lunchtime field trip to a neighborhood eatery last spring undoubtedly made Jerome Shanaway, 9, feel pretty grown up. He can feel equally proud of saying "Sara, come here please" to ask an intern for help with a task in The Sheila and Milton Fine Classrooms for Students with Autism at Day School at the Children's Institute of Pittsburgh, where he is a student. Each time, Jerome conveyed his message through a DynaVox V.

Jerome Shanaway

"I was amazed," said Gale Shanaway, who witnessed the latter interaction. She had grown accustomed to the body language or repetitive sounds ("Ba, ba, ba," for example) often mixed with visible frustration, through which her son voiced desires. But things are changing as Jerome becomes more familiar with the V because he can express himself more clearly and easily than before he had the portable device, which he acquired in a project exploring the benefits of speech communication technology for children with conditions on the autism spectrum.

Jerome's use of the technology blends right in with the smiles, hugs, signing, hand-holding and array of warm, gentle gestures that are ways of letting others know what's on his mind. He loves attention, but the negative behaviors he has often resorted to when seeking it – or simply when trying to get people to understand him – are dwindling noticeably.

"He doesn't get so frustrated," Gale Shanaway said "He heads straight for the DynaVox V."

The device helps Jerome make requests, whether he wants to munch on potato chips or watch one of the children's television shows featuring audience participatory activities that he favors. His mother will forever recall the school Halloween celebration where she first heard him speak without prompting. "I would like to play with some blocks, please," Jerome said, choosing to put aside the candy he got while trick-or-treating with classmates and take pleasure in the toys instead. With practice, she believes her son will more fully transfer those assertiveness skills to community settings like the swimming pool and his soccer games.

Gale Shanaway and her husband, Mark, adopted Jerome as an infant through the Children's Institute's Project STAR foster care and adoption program for children with special needs. A prior head injury left Jerome with multiple disabilities related to pervasive developmental disorder, a form of autism. He has also presented signs of developmental disabilities, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, neurological impairment and attention deficit disorder. Wanting a happy life for Jerome, and sensing the joy that he would also bring to their world, the Shanaways saw beyond the challenges, welcomed him into their family without a backward glance. They adopted their daughter, Gina, at the same time. Now 10, Gina, a girl of typical abilities, has settled naturally into the role of helping to look after Jerome.

"He's very smart," she said in a conversation about their frequent computer game-playing sessions. Jerome has channeled his affinity for computers into fine-tuning his communication skills with the aid of technology. His mother marvels that his progress has taken dreams of her son finding a way for his inner thoughts to reach the world – and that the world will listen – further into the realm of possibility. The proof lies in everyday information exchanges, like when Jerome brings his V to her side and proceeds to tell her about his week at school.

"He knows just what to do," Gale Shanaway said.

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