This is a meaningful chat with Dawnmarie (DM) Gaivin, who is an absolute powerhouse: mother to 2 Spellers, fantastic Spelling to Communicate (S2C) practitioner, executive director of Transcending Apraxia, and co-founder of Empowered 2 and the Ohana Consortium. For me, she was my link to communication for a year and a half, and now she is a friend and scheming buddy! Thank you DM for everything you have done for me and our San Diego community!
The transcript is below, as are 2 brief video clips (together in 1 YouTube video): first, our joyful greeting, and second, DM talking about how seeing her son openly spell the word “benevolent” in response to a question, at age 11, showed her that he’d been absorbing vocabulary and information the whole time. Enjoy!
T: Who’s that handsome guy?
D: That’s me!
D: Hi Dawnmarie! How are you?
DM: I’m good, I’m very good. I’m so proud of you, by the way. I just am in awe of your social media presence and everything you do, and how you guys fit it all in together as a team, too!
D: Wow, I am so moved by that!
DM: You’re kind of a celebrity. Did I mention there were 3 Spellers in the immersion week last week who were all over 30? One of them in particular, I said, “Danny With Words, find him, read his story.”
D: So cool! And so exciting for them! So I am wanting to talk about that first moment of Spelling and how it feels as a practitioner!
DM: So, I’ve experienced it as a parent also, but as a practitioner… so that the first person that spelled openly for me was someone you know, who has a brother who is also nonspeaking. What’s funny about that story is I had come back from my kick-off weekend training [as a practitioner] and then I called his parents the next day and said “I would love to work with your boys!”
And they were like, “This is so funny, we just pulled the car over on the side of the road yesterday and prayed, like ‘let’s get on the same page – what do we want to do about the boys?’ And we both agreed: ‘Let’s get them communicating.'”
They weren’t really gung-ho at first, so I said I’ll see him pro bono first, just to cover my nanny so that I’m not going in the hole practicing. And I’d had experience with [my son] Evan for 2 years, but this was to practice with someone else.
So I was seeing him for free. And he went from running out of the room, really stressed out, to regulated and Spelling, in 5 months.
D: Wow! What a journey.
DM: Everyone’s journey goes up – the slope goes up – but there’s ups and downs that happen along the way. So he went really fast to fluent, but then he did some RPM [Rapid Prompting Method] with another practitioner who had a different style and it dysregulated him. So he went through a long stretch where – he never lost fluency with me – but he couldn’t spell with his mom for a couple of years. Now it’s all smoothed out and everyone’s back on the boards.
But initially it was really fast, which I think fueled me – “This really is working!” – I already saw it happen with Evan, but I began to see it could work with others, and not just Evan, and how he could say so much more than what his spoken voice just let him say.
D: Wow, so inspiring and so important to note that it is not always a straight line. Like for me, I was so not inspired by the first RPM practitioner that my mom took me to. But EV [Elizabeth Vosseller] really got me fluent in two days. And then we couldn’t find someone here who gelled with me until you a few years later!
Anyway, how did it feel to see Evan spell the first time?
DM: I remember the first word he spelled open, just a single word. The practitioner was doing a poem with him, and said: “The sun came through the trees and felt like God’s love warming my skin.” And she said, “Evan, give me another word for God’s love.” And I was like [baffled expression], “What’s another word for God’s love?!”
And he spells out “Benevolent.” He was 11. Like, I knew he was smart – I knew he wasn’t intellectually disabled. But I had no idea what his intellect level was. I knew he was educatable, he’s certainly intelligent at some level. But in that moment, at 11 years old, he’s spelling the word “benevolent.” I was like, he’s either wicked smart, or this is a joke, this is a hoax. It was too much of a paradigm shift to process all at once.
So I remember saying to her afterward, “Okay, so, ‘benevolent’ – really?! What kid says benevolent at 11 years old?”
And she goes, “Well, what do you do? What do you talk about? What’s your thing?”
And at the time, I had someone coming to my house every week who was teaching me reiki because I was trying to heal Evan’s gut and I’d tried everything else and it seemed to help, so I was like, okay, whatever, I’ll learn.
And he ended up teaching me all about Buddhism because Mikao Usui, who’s the founder of reiki, was Buddhist, so really he was coming over teaching me about Buddhism every week for 3 or 4 hours. Evan would always hover whenever he was there – Evan would stay near us, playing right under the table. So he’d heard the word. He’s heard all of that vocabulary, but I didn’t know he was listening. So, it was very eye opening!
D: [Gleeful laughing] Haha, I love that families can realize we were always listening!
DM: Yeah, I realized – I was presuming competence, but I still wasn’t presuming enough. I was presuming he was in there and was teachable, and then all of a sudden I was like, “He’s way smarter than I thought.” In fact, he pushed back on me – you’ve seen it in group sessions – he pushed back on me for so long because “your lessons are too easy.”
And I’m like, “Evan, I’m not trying to supplement your education yet, I’m trying to teach you the motor skills. We’re just working on the motor skill.” But my lessons were not cognitively stimulating enough for him.
D: I totally feel that!
DM: So yeah, that was the moment of “oh, okay – I’ve got to presume higher.” And since then – and EV has said this too – we’ve not met one student who is intellectually disabled. I always presume competence, and I’ve had some really complex kids. I had one kid, it took him a year to spell a single thing correctly. Not one word could he get from the beginning to end without making a spelling mistake, so I had to prompt him all the time, so I didn’t know if any of the spelling was him at the beginning – we were still just working on the motor skills. But I was just like, “just keep going!” because I kept talking to all of these practitioners, and sure enough, it just took him that much longer to have the body awareness, and now he’s super clean at spelling. It took longer, it took 3 1/2 years, but now he’s on the 26-letter board, and his mom is spelling with him, too. That’s been really exciting.
D: Wow, such persistence and faith is seldom given to us. He must have an amazing family!
DM: Totally. That’s what I told his mom. She knew – she knew from the beginning. So I was like, “alright, you’re in, I’m in – we’re in.” He does have an amazing mom.
D: I love this and I wonder: how do you feel when you see parents see their children spell the first time?
DM: Well, I totally know what it’s like to be the parent watching their child Spell to Communicate. And that’s really emotional to me, because I think about wanting to be a mom, which is the one thing I knew I wanted to do. And not so that I could have my kids do what I wanted them to do, but just to see who they became, because you create this human being and then: what are their passions? what are their interests? what do they want to be when they grow up? And be there to coach and support them as they fly from the nest to just do their thing.
And so without communication, I felt like I was missing this whole thing – it didn’t matter to me at all that my children weren’t neurotypical, that they had autism – but I was grieving not knowing what was going on inside. So for me, personally, it was like this rebirth of what I always wanted to have as a parent. And so parents doing that, too, having that moment of, “I get to know you! And find out all the things I was right about, and all the things I was wrong about.”
That discovery, it’s like… you fall in love with your child sometimes the first time you hear their heartbeat when they’re still inside you, other times it’s the moment you meet them when they’re born. But it’s like you get to have that whole experience again, it’s like that intense again, when you hear their first thought, even if it’s just a word.
D: My goodness, I want to cry and it is so powerful and so true! Have you ever had parents doubt you or S2C?
DM: I feel like once they walk through the door, they believe more than they doubt. So I’ve had conversations with folks who just never come in, so those are doubters who are like, “I want to believe it, but…” – but they need to hear it from someone they personally know first. That’s where J.B. Handley’s book [Underestimated] was so helpful, because even though a lot of people didn’t know him personally, they felt like they knew him, and that became their trusted source, like “okay, I believe what he says,” and he’s a good writer.
D: I so love chatting with you!
DM: We need to have coffee more. I see all your coffee dates and I get very jealous.
D: Yes please!
DM: So JB’s book helped a lot of parents, especially dads who might have been doubting. One who was a bit of a doubter, he was like “alright, I’m doing this because my wife and I are trying to be on the same page.” But he’d sit in, and after a while, he was like, “you can’t deny it, once you see it.”
Though with presuming competence, I feel like, for some parents there’s a ‘burning bush’ moment, and for others, it’s a more gradual realization, there’s like a gradual eating of the elephant until it’s not a huge thing anymore. One mom here, it took her a long time, like 7 or 8 months, she used to say all the time, “How does my child know that?” and it was a process for her to forget everything she thought she knew – assumed – about her child.
It’s a beautiful gift to be able to witness this over and over and over again with families.
D: It is so valuable and so life-changing! So how do you feel when you meet a new client? Are you nervous or excited or what?
DM: I don’t get nervous. I definitely am excited. I think I got nervous in the first year until I developed some feeling of confidence and competence with different sensory profiles. What used to make me nervous – I want to say it was a little bit of people pleasing, like if I had a doubting family, I’d want the Speller to show what they could do maybe sooner than they could. But now I don’t put that pressure on them or myself.
D: We do sense the pressure!
DM: Totally, and I think that’s what made me nervous, because it wasn’t in alignment with my values to put that pressure on the Speller. I’m not there to people please the parent. My only fear is that a parent will stop bringing their Speller because their child hasn’t shown their potential fast enough for the parent. So that’s why I tell my team to get the parents on the boards by session 2 or 3, because if they’re just sitting back and watching, then they don’t really understand the process in the beginning. When we work together like that, we’ve never had a family leave (unless they relocate and go to a closer provider). What I never want to have happen is to have a parent quit S2C, but it doesn’t happen now.
D: Wow, so much pressure indeed!
DM: Which you as the nonspeaker don’t need to feel. So what I try to do is really teach my team that piece – you’ve got to think about the family as an ecosystem, and you have to consider all parts when you’re spelling with them.
D: My ecosystem was thrown off a bit when I got fully fluent with Tara, but it is in balance now!
DM: Whether they want to consciously or not, there’s a resistance to changes in roles.
T: Danny, you mentioned you want this to be one of the topics for Leo in Bloom in the future, actually.
DM: I really appreciate the stuff that you spotlight. I had a mom say to one of the team, “I feel like I’m failing as a mom” – she has a complex kid, he’s doing great, he has some days where he’s open and some days where he really can’t be – but she is an amazing mother, and there’s an amazing dad, they’re amazing parents, but she’s seeing all these kids graduating from college in the news. When you only see in the media or social media these stories minus how that all happened, how they got there, what resource it took, what kind of support team did that require – right now, the systems aren’t there to support them well at the schools, someday it’s going to be easier. Or even that that’s the gold standard, that we all need to aspire to a college degree.
I appreciate when you post about when you’ve been dysregulated and the challenges you face, because people aren’t talking about that as much. And I talk about it in my sessions and programs because that’s reality. And when you really talk to people, you know that line of progress isn’t a straight slope, there’s dips that happen. You don’t want to tell someone on Day 1 because you want to encourage them, but I’m not hiding it from them – if they ask me, I’m straightforward about it.
D: Absolutely, and it is so important to remember that communication is necessary, but not everything!
DM: Yeah, like everything doesn’t just suddenly become rainbows and unicorns.
D: But it is so great to celebrate the glow of that first realization that the words are in there! Well, thank you so much for your time, busy lady!
DM: Glad I had a spot for the VIP!
D: I can’t thank you enough for how you have changed my life!