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Nonverbal students can order for themselves, thanks to their teacher

Innovation for independence
Coby Hays, a Mars Area Primary Center first-grader in Jordyn Wyllie’s life skills class, is thrilled to order from his augmentative communication device. Wyllie added foods to the devices so her students can order for themselves at restaurants using the device’s voice. She also created adaptive menus to be used at North Park Lounge, where she works on weekends. Paula Grubbs/Butler Eagle

CRANBERRY TWP — A caring educator combined her position as a life skills teacher at Mars Area Primary Center with her side gig as a server at North Park Lounge to create a program that allows nonverbal children to order for themselves when they go out to eat.

Jordyn Wyllie said she has served many young children and even her own life skills students and their families who have come to eat at the popular restaurant.

“They struggled to read off of the menu or order independently,” Wyllie said, “so I hoped to combat the struggles by creating an adaptive menu.”

Wyllie first created a mini cafe in her life skills classroom, where she had students use their augmentative alternative communications devices to pretend they were interacting with servers and ordering meals and beverages.

The nonverbal students just tap words on their device, which says the word out loud.

“Communication is a big barrier,” Wyllie said. “Building independence is the goal of our life skills program.”

Wyllie insists her students use full sentences when using their devices to order, including “please” and “thank you.”

Field trip

On Thursday, April 11, four thrilled students from Wyllie’s class traveled to North Park Lounge to have lunch with their teacher, Principal Jessica Semler, a student teacher and the paraprofessionals assigned to help each student at school.

The group was there to not only use the devices to order, but to try out the adaptive children’s menu Wyllie created for use at North Park Lounge.

Each student received a four-page menu to peruse that listed 30 kid-friendly favorites, like chicken fingers, pasta, pizza, apple slices, apple sauce, french fries and burgers in larger print.

Beside each menu item is a picture of the item, so students who have trouble reading can see what is available.

Youngsters can then point to the item they want on the menu, or they can use their communication device to order.

One full page on the adaptive menu listed pictures and text a diner can touch to communicate various needs, like “all done,” “I need a break,” and “more.”

After the adaptive children’s menus were distributed Thursday, the robotic voices of the students’ devices could be heard saying “french fries” more than once.

Among the items on the adaptive menu are gluten free selections and items for children who have a hard time chewing or swallowing, Wyllie said.

She said working at North Park Lounge on the weekends, plus hearing the stories of restriction from her students’ families, demonstrated that the adaptive menus and food items on the communication devices were much needed.

“A lot of families don’t take their (special needs) kids out, so I said ‘We’re doing this,’” Wyllie said.

She worked with the restaurant manager and chef in creating the adaptive menu.

North Park Lounge picked up the four students’ checks, and the school district paid for the rest, Wyllie said.

“It’s something we can move forward with and use for anybody,” said Marcy Hogue, assistant general manager at North Park Lounge.

She said exposing the staff to the needs of special customers is another positive facet of the adaptive menu.

“We’re a family here, and everybody works together for the good of our customers,” Hogue said. “We consider any ideas from any employees who have suggestions. Anything to make us better.”

An enthusiastic student named Coby Hays wriggled with delight as his wheelchair was lowered from the van in front of North Park Lounge.

“His mom said he sprang out of bed this morning,” Wyllie said.

Coby expertly changed between multiple screens and pecked the correct tabs on his communication device to share that he had ordered penne pasta for lunch on Thursday.

Asked how it felt to have an adaptive menu and the ability to order from his device, Coby selected the word “Wonderful.”

A student named Sophia called Wyllie “nice” for going to the trouble of creating the adaptive menu.

Sophia ordered apple slices and a corn dog, which she named as her favorite food.

Semler said as principal, she wanted to attend the lunch at North Park Lounge to see the adaptive menus and communication devices in action.

“And I came to support Miss Wyllie and her students and paraprofessionals,” she said. “The amount of work Miss Wyllie has put into this classroom … I couldn’t be prouder to have her as a teacher.”

Semler heartily approved of the adaptive menus and communication devices.

“I hope kids feel confident and have the tools now that they know wherever they go, they are able to interact with anybody around them,” she said.

Olivia Catlin, a Mars Area school nurse, also was impressed with the independence the adaptive menus and communication devices provided the children at the restaurant.

“I think it’s phenomenal,” Catlin said. “It gives these kids the skills they’ll use for everything.

“It gives them a voice and a way to participate,” she said.

Jordyn Wyllie, a life skills teacher at Mars Area Primary Center, took four students to lunch Thursday at North Park Lounge, where they used the adaptive menu she created to independently order their lunches. Paula Grubbs/Butler Eagle
Kyrie Li, a Mars Area Primary Center kindergartner, peruses foods on his augmentative communications device Thursday at North Park Lounge. His teacher, Jordyn Wyllie, added foods to the devices and created an adaptive menu to be used at the restaurant, where she works as a server on weekends. Paula Grubbs/Butler Eagle
Jordyn Wyllie, a Mars Area Primary Center life skills teacher and part-time server at North Park Lounge in Cranberry Township, took four of her students to lunch there Thursday to try out the adaptive menu she created. Paula Grubbs/Butler Eagle

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