Communication Disorders and ASL Q&A with Emily Thelen

Story by Hallie Neller

Photo courtesy of Jordan Barrete

Emily Thelen is a current senior enrolled at Central Michigan University. She is majoring in communication sciences and disorders with a minor in American Sign Language. Thelen is the president for an RSO called the Speech-Language Hearing Club (SLHC). She is a Resident Assistant in the Robinson and Calkins (RoC) community where she also works as a Desk Receptionist. Every other weekend, Thelen will go home to St. Johns to work as a manager at Spad’s Twisters Ice Cream.

Can you explain to me what you are learning with your major and minor?

Right now, I am taking courses through concurrent enrollment. This means that I am taking graduate courses during my undergrad. I am taking Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) which is teaching me about the different types of AAC devices that people of all ages and backgrounds use to communicate. I am also taking a Neuroanatomy course that is teaching me about the brain and the clinical correlates of different disorders we will be working with in the future. During undergrad, we typically learn the broad overview of the field, but since my future career as a speech-language pathologist (SLP) requires a master’s degree, we go into more detail during our graduate courses. I am also currently taking a clinic course this semester which gives me the opportunity to work with clients through our on-campus clinic.

How did you branch into your studies? What led/guided you to where you are now?

I originally thought about being a teacher, but then my older sister went to CMU to be a teacher and I couldn’t do everything the same as her, so she introduced me to this major in high school! I couldn’t decide if I wanted to work with children or adults and I have always been passionate about helping others, so when I shadowed a school SLP in high school, I knew this was what I wanted to do. Since then, I have had experience working with all ages through observations or outside experiences and have really enjoyed working with the geriatric population, specifically those who have had strokes or traumatic brain injuries. I am really excited to see where I end up in the future since I really have enjoyed working with people of all ages and disorders.

What is your experience with communication disorders and ASL?

In elementary school, I would learn some ASL through concerts we would have at St. Joseph School. My mom has taught me some sign language and it was something I wanted to continue to learn more about in college when I knew I needed to take a minor. I have grown up knowing people who have had communication disorders and family members who have had Alzheimer’s Disease, so some communication disorders were more familiar to me than others. Since high school, I have had opportunities to work with individuals who have differing disorders and I have fallen in love with this major and this career path.

What type of communication disorders are there and which one(s) are you most familiar with?

There are many different types of communication disorders and we focus on the Big 9 which include: “articulation, fluency, voice and resonance, receptive and expressive language, hearing, swallowing, cognitive aspects of communication, social aspects of communication, and communication modalities.”

I am familiar with receptive and expressive language, articulation, hearing, fluency and communication modalities. I am familiar with all of them in a very broad sense, but some of them I have worked with more than others.

What goes into assessing a communication disorder?

When assessing a communication disorder, you do a specific type of assessment that best meets the needs of the individual. There will never be one assessment that works well for every individual. It is difficult to explain because I have done some standardized assessments to assess individuals, but for many individuals, this is not a good way to find out their full ability because standardized measures do not work for everyone. It is a case by case and client by client situation.

Can you describe to me how you use your knowledge daily?

This semester, I have been using everything I have been learning with my clients. I also relate it to my everyday life at home when I have family members or friends who are going through similar things as to what I am learning. I am not a SLP yet and so I currently just try to think of ways that I can improve myself and apply what I have been learning to scenarios. I am very thankful for the experiences in the clinic I have received this semester, because it gives me the opportunity to learn and grow in myself and help my client in an organized setting that is legal for me as an undergraduate clinician (since we have supervisors who oversee our sessions).

How fluent are you in ASL? How confident are you in your ASL?

Unfortunately, I am not fluent in ASL since I have not been practicing with others. I took an ASL class last semester, but prior to that it had been a year since my last ASL class since I jumped into the minor so early. I have never interpreted for someone, but at Twisters, we did have a Deaf person come through the drive thru and he was signing so instead of having him type out his order, I was able to sign with him and figure out what he wanted to order without him having to write it down. I will always stay up to date on ASL that is relating to my future job or even my job at the ice cream shop, because I want everyone to have an equal chance to communicate however they want to communicate without having to have to feel like an inconvenience to me (because they are never an inconvenience).

Similar to how people forget words, have you ever struggled or forgotten what you were trying to sign? How did you work through this?

I forget words all the time. When I really do not know, I end up fingerspelling the word or phrase out and whoever I am talking with is able to understand what I am trying to say. I do get embarrassed when I forget the sign, but I try to use what I do know in ASL instead of using my voice.

What is your involvement in the Deaf Community? How connected do you feel to the Deaf Community?

I was more involved in the Deaf Community when I was taking ASL courses. Since I haven’t taken a course in a while, I do not feel as connected.

What is a common misinformed/misunderstood fact about communication disorders? About ASL?

I think lots of people who do not know people with communication disorders think they are not as smart as they are. It is frustrating to hear people use words that degrading to those who have communication disorders. I get frustrated that the ‘r’ word is still used today. That doesn’t necessarily relate to specifically communication disorders, but that is a word that people need to learn that does not mean what they think it means. I also think it is important to listen to the person with the disability. I will always use “person-first” language (this means saying the person with autism rather than the autistic person) UNLESS the person with autism or the person with the disorder tells me otherwise, because some do prefer to be the other way around. If someone told me that is what they preferred, that is what I am going to use. People do not listen to the person, they rely on their communication partners to talk for them, but regardless of the communication device or the way the person communicates, it is important to look at them as they are: a person.

About ASL specifically, it is important to address people as a Deaf person, not a person who is Deaf (so the opposite of disorders). Deaf people are not ashamed that they cannot hear. They have Deaf culture which is very important and incredible! Again, if you hear something differently from the person, listen to them and their preferences. This is where it is really important to look at the person signing and not at their interpreter if they have one. You are communicating with the Deaf person, not their interpreter.

What is the one skill that you depend highly on for your studies?

I use empathy the most so far in my studies. As a clinician, it is important for me to listen to my clients and their needs. In our courses, we discuss Evidence-Based Practice. This uses a triangle of needs in order to be the best possible clinician. Of course, we need to use research and knowledge for one, we also need to listen to the client’s and family’s goals and wants, as well as our clinical experiences. Being able to be open and honest with my clients and help them feel comfortable and safe with me, is my number one goal before moving on to therapy. If my client doesn’t like me or doesn’t trust me, they will not be intrinsically motivated to work on their goals during the session.

As an RA, how do you implement your knowledge?

I have been able to transfer my personal skills between each role. As an RA, I need to be approachable which is the same as when I am with clients. I also need to work well on a team with both groups. In my future career, I will be collaborating with other professionals to best meet the needs of my client. In my RA role, I have a staff of individuals that I work with to come up with fun events for our residents and create a safe environment for everyone in our community.

As an RA, how do you offer accessibility to students with communication disorders?

Last year, I facilitated a Stuttering event for our staff because we had an individual in our building who stuttered. That was a topic I was passionate for a while and I wanted our staff to understand how to respond if the person stuttered during the conversation. We have also had students who have autism live in our community and I have talked with staff members about how autism is so different in every individual. Autism will never look the same and it is important to know the potential triggers for some with autism. Overall, our staff creates a safe, open environment for anyone to come to us with concerns. When we cannot help, we send them to a professional who can help them.

When learning of communication disorders and meeting someone with communication disorders, do you find it hard to keep your emotions in check?

I am a very empathetic person in general, but I do not think I have a difficult time keeping my emotions in check when I am with the individual. If there is a situation that is difficult or sad, I am able to act professional in the moment and then when I am alone, I tend to react or process the situation more. In a weird, off topic example, I have been pulled over (because my taillight was out) and I was so shaky and scared, but I didn’t cry until the police officer drove away and I was at home. The same is true with clients, I don’t react on the spot, but if there is a situation that is bothersome, I process it later my own or with a professional that I am able to confide in about those types of situations (clinical supervisor if related to clinic or Residence Hall Director if related to a resident).

How do you plan to use your knowledge in the future?

As of right now, I want to work with the geriatric population either in a hospital or nursing home setting. I want to work with individuals who have Alzheimer’s or dementia and help them communicate with their loved ones. This may change in graduate school when I get experience with more populations.

What is the most important thing that you’ve learned so far? What is your biggest take away?

Every individual is different. That may sound silly and obvious, but disorders do not present the same in everyone. Nothing is black and white and that is okay. I have always lived in the black and white, but throughout this major and my Residence Life position, I have learned that is not the case anymore and that is okay.

What do you find to be the most rewarding aspect of what you do/learn?

I get to work with so many incredible individuals in both my courses and in Residence Life. I get the opportunity to learn at a university that I love, and I get to work with clients that have the most incredible personalities! If I can make a difference in just one person’s life, I will feel successful. This future career gives me the opportunity to potentially do that!

What has been the hardest aspect of this path of studies?

The hardest aspect of this path of studies is the fact that nothing is black and white. I like having an obvious response and answer to everything, and that will not happen in this field. I have come to enjoy it and embrace the gray area, but it is more challenging to transition from that mindset.

Are you planning to further your knowledge into graduate school or even further?

Starting this summer, I am attending Central Michigan University to complete my master’s degree in speech-language pathology! I am very excited for this opportunity to continue here. In this program, they do require a master’s degree to work with clients so graduate school was always my plan. I would love to get my doctorate degree eventually, but for now, I am looking forward to completing my master’s degree!

Based upon your knowledge on communication disorders and ASL, what advice would you offer to someone?

If it was someone in the same program as me, I would tell them to use every opportunity given to them – participate in research with a professor, take the clinic course, join an RSO on campus related to speech (SLHC or AFSLP) do concurrent enrollment to feel prepared for graduate school, embrace every opportunity that is offered!

If it were someone random – Do not judge someone before you know them. Communication disorders are different for everyone and the disorder will never define the individual. Do not judge those who use communication devices to communicate. Educate your family and friends and children about disorders, don’t tell them not to stare, educate them and encourage them to ask questions. Our generation has the opportunity to do better, and we need to take it and start with changing our mindset on disorders.