Jessica Smith has a passion for cats, Legos, and assistive technology (AT). A decade after being diagnosed with autism in second grade, she has now completed high school and strives to use AT to improve the lives of others.
00:00:01 Johnandrew Slominski
Hi everybody, welcome to this episode of the Autism Annex podcast. I'm Johnandrew Slominski. Behind the scenes here on the podcast, or more accurately behind the microphone, I talk with people who experience the world of autism and neurodiversity in so many different ways, and all episodes come together a little differently. For today's episode, I had two conversations with my guest, Jessica Smith and her mom, Lisa. You'll meet them in a moment.
00:00:33 Johnandrew Slominski
Jessica, as she'll tell you, is on the spectrum and our two conversations went very, very differently. In one, Jessica was calm, collected and relaxed, and in the other she told me that her anxiety and stress were almost intolerable. I say almost because as you'll hear, Jessica is impossibly perseverant. She deliberately accepts challenges like being on the podcast as opportunities for growth, and insisted that we carry on no matter what. Jessica, if you're listening, thank you for sticking with this project even when things got tough.
00:01:13 Johnandrew Slominski
So Jessica, I hear you finished high school this year, right?
00:01:16 Jessica Smith
00:01:18 Johnandrew Slominski
Well, big congratulations, and it's worth mentioning that you were also recognized right at graduation for a bunch of your achievements. Tell me about that.
00:01:28 Jessica Smith
Uh, most of them were just because I did good in the classes.
00:01:34 Lisa Smith
Most of them are academic achievements, but the biggest one is she was recognized from the school and giving a little scholarship.
00:01:40 Jessica Smith
Yeah, it was from my assistive technology work.
00:01:46 Johnandrew Slominski
By the way, that's Jessica's mom, Lisa. You'll hear her proudly chime in periodically. Jessica, before we dive in further, let's start with the definition. What exactly is assistive technology, or AT?
00:02:02 Jessica Smith
Well, they probably, they usually never even understand after I say it because it's so hard to explain, but I try and say it’s like fabricating like things to help people like materials to help people with their everyday tasks. That's what I sort of sort of say in a nutshell.
00:02:22 Johnandrew Slominski
So in assistive technology or AT, you're providing technology and solutions for people who have challenges with navigating everyday activities. And, you've devised your own approaches to assistive technology. How did that start?
00:02:39 Jessica Smith
Umm so I started back when I was in the ninth grade in like 2017. I got held back in high school, but back in 9th grade that summer before I started school, for some reason I just wanted to play with some symbols and like cut out and laminate some for myself. So I was going around on websites looking for them and I learned about how first responders need, like, to understand people with autism more so, like there's not, like any bad situations.
00:03:17 Johnandrew Slominski
At this point, as you're making communication boards, you are totally self-taught when it comes to assistive technology. How did you already know how important it could be?
00:03:30 Jessica Smith
I didn't really know how important it was in the beginning. I just remembered that I used stuff like that occasionally in elementary school and for some reason, something just sparked and me saying ohh I wanna get some of these and make some stuff.
00:03:46 Lisa Smith
You were also, at the time, you were having anxiety and you weren't doing well in school, like you're having your outbursts and they had mentioned the police a couple of times and because she if she eloped they’d call the police and notify me. And that triggered some anxiety in her because she knows that when she's extremely upset or anxious, she doesn't have the ability to one, reason and two, necessarily advocate for herself and speak up so and that was a big fear for her.
00:04:22 Johnandrew Slominski
Well, and that's so important, right, to have the tools to communicate, especially when things get tense.
00:04:29 Johnandrew Slominski
Since we're on a podcast and we can't directly show listeners, could you describe the tools that you've made? So, for the record, we're looking at a laminated piece of paper to start. What does it look like and what's on it?
00:04:43 Jessica Smith
Um, so I have boards and like they say like I want and then they have like sensory stuff like I want headphones or it's too bright or it's too loud. And then I have like canine on there.
00:05:00 Lisa Smith
Need help. Prescriptions, right? They would ask things like what's your name? Right, Jess? It would say please, it had a pain scale on it so it had like the...
00:05:14 Jessica Smith
Well, some had the pain skill, yeah.
00:05:17 Johnandrew Slominski
So in other words, if someone isn't able to communicate verbally or process aurally in a given situation, they can point or watch someone else point using one of your communication boards. Now I imagine there's a learning curve for people who haven't used AT before. How would you train people? Or maybe help first responders to know what to do in these kinds of situations?
00:05:43 Jessica Smith
The police will have to explain some way to the person that's nonverbal to point to the boards as the person never pointed to the boards. That would be the only problem.
00:05:54 Jessica Smith
But the first responders would have to like know like to be patient with the person to point to the boards. One of them I was thinking about today. So I've been writing social stories and I'm writing a social story for a Police Department right now about their canines. And I want them to like not like speak completely dumb, but like I want them to like speak clearly and like, make sure that people are fall to them. Understand. Because I know some of the times when I've been in crisis, like if I was acting out towards the police like they would start mocking me a little bit. And they were like a little rude towards me, like, well, seemed rude, but they were probably just as stressed out as I was. But that wasn't very good. And I'd also like them to be trained more on how to handle them with, like having fidgets and knowing to keep like a calm demeanor.
00:07:11 Lisa Smith
It's been received, well received and identified as a need within the Police Department of having other means of communication with the population. Not only does it work for the nonverbal, but it would also work...
00:07:22 Jessica Smith
That are scared. Yeah. Like if they're like, a bad medical accident and they can't talk for some reason.
00:07:30 Lisa Smith
Not only autism, but also the Alzheimer's population. Several of the police departments have nursing homes and assisted living and facilities, and they felt that these were some items they could use for these sites.
00:07:48 Johnandrew Slominski
Speaking of other approaches and applications for assistive technology, you've branched out a little bit into 3D printing, and I'm curious what sorts of things are happening in that area.
00:08:02 Jessica Smith
Do you know what makers making change is?
00:08:05 Johnandrew Slominski
No. What is it?
00:08:06 Jessica Smith
So they have volunteers who will 3D print assistive technology for people with disabilities. So I was on there and I got one of their 3D printed kits, like October I got it. But in November I started working with them, the state assistive technology program, techOWL. And I started doing trainings with them and doing their monthly network meetings where I can talk about what I do. And I got a little interested in with the fabrication part. Like say if somebody had trouble writing, there's like a piece you could put on their hand and it would hold a pen and they would be able to write. Like, I wouldn’t be able to think of that. But I've gotten into the fabrication a little bit, so that's what really got me started with techOWL.
00:09:06 Johnandrew Slominski
Yeah, let's talk about techOWL, which you've gotten involved with and is a really interesting organization. What is techOWL in Pennsylvania and what do they do?
00:09:18 Jessica Smith
TechOWL is the state assistive technology program. They'll do they give out tablets and phones, and they also do 3D printing for low cost or free for the people in Pennsylvania. And then actually each state has their own program. So if you go on the techOWL website, you can follow the link and you can get connected with the assistive technology program in your state.
00:09:52 Johnandrew Slominski
And Jessica, for you personally, since you've been connected with techOWL, what are some of the projects that you've been involved with and interested in?
00:10:02 Jessica Smith
I've helped them with, like I don't really consider it like a lot of projects I did because I just started in November. But I've seen some of the projects they had these virtual reality headsets to help people in nursing homes, and I ended up just helping one of the guys that did it with their switch adapting class and I think switches are probably my most favorite part of assistive technology because you can like make anything work with a switch if you know what you're doing.
00:10:41 Johnandrew Slominski
So when I think of switches, I think of light switches, but you're talking about something completely different in terms of using switches to help people’s everyday lives with a lot of different activities and applications. How does that work?
00:10:57 Jessica Smith
So you take a stereo cable and you like solder it in. Or like you can attach it in the battery compartment. Like if you do it right when you plug in the switch and press it, it should make the toy work. And also if you have there's a thing called a power link and if you plug a switch into that and plug it into our appliance, you can control the appliance with the switch. Like, if they can't move their hand, or they even have switches where it's like you can use a finger or you can like bump your head on something and then they also have stuff where like if there's like little tremors in your hands like it was like even the slightest movement, it'll make the device work.
00:11:46 Johnandrew Slominski
Jessica, a long time before you started helping others to overcome challenges through assistive technology you lived through some pretty big challenges yourself. Could you talk a little bit about growing up and what that experience was like for you?
00:12:03 Jessica Smith
Um, so for me it was hard because nobody really knew I had autism until second grade and I didn't really get services till 4th grade. But, like it was just torture. Like I would have school. And I did somewhat good in elementary school, but like I had like always had, like the principal, like, helping me. Luckily she was really nice. She would, um.... That was especially more towards I got like till 5th grade she would let me come in her office and take breaks. There was just so many issues with me in school and me in daycare, because in daycare I got bullied a lot. Like they started me with an IEP when I was in kindergarten.
00:12:54 Johnandrew Slominski
Lisa, if I could ask you to chime in here, what were you seeing during this time as a parent while Jessica was struggling?
00:13:03 Lisa Smith
I was gonna say she needed services from the get-go, so she needed speech. She was exhibiting symptoms. Some of the telltale signs. But she's an only child, so it wasn't like we could put our finger on it, what was going on. But she was very rigid and routine, and they recognized that she had some learning difficulties, especially with recall.
00:13:31 Jessica Smith
I still have trouble with it today. Like when I this past year before I graduated, I really noticed they couldn’t... Like if I read it by myself like I get nothing from the story. I’d remember nothing. They'd have to read it out loud to me. I'd have to be following the line with the pencil because I always have to. My eyes like when I'm reading, if it's a lot of stuff to read, my eyes will just go all over the place and then I'll get lost. So I just have to use like a finger or a pencil.
00:14:08 Johnandrew Slominski
And I think that's actually a great example of how even the smallest assistive technology, such as gripping a pencil to help your reading and recall, can be really meaningful. Jessica, now that you've graduated high school, what do you think you want to do next if, let's say, absolutely anything were possible?
00:14:30 Jessica Smith
Well, I would like to work with techOWL, our local assistive technology program. Like I'd like to get a job there and like maybe help people like graph communication devices, maybe work with their SLPs. Sometimes I'd even want to be an SLP. But like if like I could create like a job like cause like I you know, I do a mix. I do like some of like the fabricating, but also like with like, I do a lot of SLP stuff like with like communication boards and stuff. So I'd like to get a job there doing both of them.
00:15:13 Lisa Smith
I think a good job title would be as like a business administrator where she would bridge the gaps to allow like bring in all the technology, show them how it's used, help them use it, to implement it.
00:15:34 Johnandrew Slominski
Lisa, as you see your daughter growing into adulthood and being of service to others, setting big life goals, and even stepping outside of her comfort zone right now to be on a podcast, as a parent, how does that make you feel?
00:15:49 Lisa Smith
Jess has a great story, especially with her struggles with the autism, living with autism, and then also living with autism and mental health. Because she's overcome all of that and she's doing things now that her medication is adjusted right and that she can focus and grow. She's using this platform to step out of her comfort zone and do things she's never done. And I she's a great... I am in awe of what she's done.
00:16:34 Jessica Smith
Yeah, my mom’s starting to make me cry thinking about um, thinking about that.
00:16:40 Lisa Smith
It's hard for her. And she should be very proud, which you should be, Jess, of where you've been and where you've come to because this you've really come to the other side of things.
00:16:53 Johnandrew Slominski
Jessica and Lisa, I want to thank you both for being on the podcast and sharing your story today. And Jessica, I hope you'll keep us posted. I can't wait to hear what's next for you.
00:17:06 Johnandrew Slominski
You've been listening to the Autism Annex podcast. I'm your host, Johnandrew Slominski. Special thanks to my guests today, Jessica Smith and her mom, Lisa. If you'd like to learn more about assistive technology resources in the state of Pennsylvania, where Jessica lives, check out techOWL PA, that's TECHOWL pa.org. You can also learn more about assistive technology programs in your state by visiting acl.gov.
00:17:40 Johnandrew Slominski
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