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February Catch-Up

I know, it’s almost the end of March! The last month and a half has been increasingly bananas.

New Tashi Words

Picking up from where I left off:

NOISE

I added NOISE on January 27, in large part because Tashi was using several words in obviously off-label ways that I didn’t understand, which indicates a concept that he doesn’t have words for. Someone on Discord had suggested NOISE as a good general all-purpose word for allowing learners to talk about things around them; since I’d already been modeling it for many weeks, and Tashi’s alert-barking to Things Happening Outside was increasing, I decided to give it a try.

He hasn’t used it very much at all, and those few occasions have been about equally split between situations where we could hear an obvious noise at the moment (like when Jak was using the noisy hand mixer) and where it seemed mostly quiet, at least to human ears. It has had zero impact on his alert-barking (which is not a problem, just a data point).

I’m still confident he knows the word, simply because by now I have enough data points to have developed an excellent sense of how much verbal modeling it takes for Tashi to learn a new word — which varies according to salience (in the academic psychology sense), but we’re well past that point even for a concept he doesn’t think is very important.

So at this point I have to assume noise is not something he has much to say about. (If that continues to be true, at some point I may pull it and reuse the button, but we’re not there yet.)

PAW(S)

Also on the 27th I added PAWS (later rerecorded to be PAW). He instantly started using it along with his requests, in the same way that he used to use SKRITCHES until I added more verbs like HELP and WANT. I mostly covered this one in my last entry on Embodiment; the rest I’ll explain when I get to LEG, below.

HUNGRY and LEASH

These additions, two days after NOISE and PAWS, were part of my response to figuring out what was going on with Tashi’s use of body parts. Even though I felt like I could mostly understand his usage now (TAIL is still a little vague), I could see long-term value in distinguishing between literal body parts and their various metaphorical meanings.

So since Tashi appeared to be using BELLY primarily and perhaps exclusively to indicate hunger (often in combination with other food-related buttons, occasionally not), I wanted to see if he could be redirected to use HUNGRY for the wanting of food and keep BELLY for other physical uses — HURT BELLY or SICK BELLY, for example, as distinct from HUNGRY. So far (as of late March) he’s using HUNGRY some of the time and BELLY some of the time, and he doesn’t appear to have had any kind of gastrointestinal distress so far that would necessitate another context. If he’s using BELLY for anything other than hunger, I haven’t realized it yet. (Even though we extensively modeled “belly skritches” to teach the word “belly”, he doesn’t ever request BELLY SKRITCHES with buttons; he just rolls over on his back when we’re nearby and paying attention to him. Which works!)

At the same time, I strongly suspected that Tashi was using NECK (in the post-cone era) to mean “wearing a leash”, and so I added LEASH (another word that he likely knew from our verbal use) to test this theory. (I picked LEASH over WALK at this point because we use a leash for more than just going on walks — most commonly for trips outside to potty after dark.)

He used the LEASH button right away, and every interaction we’ve had since has confirmed for me that this was, in fact, what he meant all along. He’s seemed happy to have the LEASH button (moreso than HUNGRY, about which he seems kind of indifferent), but he also still uses NECK a decent percentage of the time. There is no distinguishing pattern I can see, including which other buttons are nearest — sometimes he’ll seem to use a button because it’s near other ones in the same phrase, but not infrequently he’ll pass one synonym by to use the other one that’s three sections down. Yet another mystery!

SAD

Remember how Jak and I thought that Tashi was sometimes saying HURT for emotional reasons? (We were wrong in that case, but I’m still pretty sure it’s happened a couple of other times.) That’s why on February 4 I brought back the idea of a SAD button. (He’d previously had it for one day back in November.)

He definitely remembered the concept but he used it very rarely at first — which is good, if I’m doing my job as a dog guardian, right? It’s come up a lot more this month … but I’ll save that story for the March catch-up post.

POLITE and RUDE

Three days after SAD I added the descriptor pair POLITE and RUDE. As with almost every word I add now, they were words I’d been modeling verbally for months. I made a ninety-second video for Tashi’s Instagram that concisely explains the context and shows his first use of RUDE, so I’ll include that here:

Since then he’s used RUDE a handful of other times (such a tiny percentage of his overall word usage that again, it suggests to me we’re mostly doing a good job here). He didn’t touch POLITE at all for well over a month and I thought maybe he wasn’t going to use it at all ever … but then in the last week he’s used it twice, so now I’m just waiting to see what develops.

CAT, DOG, and PERSON

These were three of the buttons that I left off at first when I moved from floor to wall in early January; I put them back up (February 9) in part because Tashi had increased his alert barking and I wanted to give him ways to talk about that, as well as things like dogs he encountered on walks and so on.

He talks about the cats, using either CAT or their respective names, several times a week; I almost never understand what he’s trying to communicate. Sometimes he just says CAT, the end … when no cats are visible, or one is visible but Tashi isn’t paying him/her any attention. Other times it’s puzzling combos, like a couple of days ago he said PRACTICE GRACIE (“practice” is my word for training games involving treats). It’s an ongoing mystery.

His use of DOG and PERSON are more as expected — DOG often refers to himself, but now also occasionally other dogs; PERSON as far as I know has always meant either me or Jak. He does sometimes use our specific names; I assume he picks PERSON when he wants something and any available human will do.

WALK

This was an obvious one that had been on my plan for a long time, but was low priority when he was getting only two or three walks a week and didn’t really have agency in deciding when they would be. (Walking him is physically difficult for me in multiple dimensions due to various disabilities, so I’m highly reliant on Jak there, and Jak was not initially inclined to take requests.)

The priority surged upward when I began to strongly suspect hip dysplasia. Since fetch is bad for joint problems, I began trying to lower the number of daily fetch sessions (tough, because Tashi is in the “ball is life” camp) and lobbying for Jak’s help in increasing the number of walks, and I added the button on February 12. (You’ll also notice FLIRT disappearing from the board plan in March for the same reason — I was going to buy a flirt pole in April, but not after seeing the x-rays and how loose his hips already are.)

He began using WALK easily and reasonably often, yet still not uncommonly uses NECK to mean walk, despite my always re-modeling (at least verbally, and occasionally with buttons) a sentence with WALK when he does. The body-focused bias is strong in this one.

LEG

Tashi got x-rays on February 16, at which point I realized that LEG (encompassing hip) would be an extremely important word going forward … although because of scarcity paralysis (see below) I didn’t actually add the button until the 24th. Coincidentally, my friend’s dog Chewie had been limping earlier that week, and Saturday morning we had to call off their play date after approximately one minute because their typical rough-and-tumble greeting caused Chewie to yelp in pain and start favoring his hind leg again.

So … I had to explain to Tash that CHEWIE LEG HURT, NO PLAY NOW, and I used the excuse to make a LEG button. I continued to model CHEWIE LEG HURT whenever he asked about CHEWIE for the next couple of weeks, while the playdates were on hold under vet’s orders. He asked a lot less often than I expected, honestly, considering how much they adore each other … maybe because he understood what was going on?

When it came to his own use, however, it was quickly apparent that Tashi made no mental distinction between LEG and PAW; he immediately started using LEG in all the same ways he’d previously used PAW, mostly appended to requests for things like KONG or PUZZLE or OUTSIDE that required a human to both go somewhere and do something with our hands. At the same time, he stopped using PAW altogether, LEG being directly above it on the board (see diagram below) and marginally more convenient for him.

One of the interesting things about this whole PAW/LEG experience is how it showed me how my own preconceptions dictated how I interpreted his body-part synonyms. When applied to a human, I think of “paws” as “hands” and therefore, when appended to a request, more equivalent to HELP or “use your monkey fingers to do a thing for me”. I think of “legs” primarily as instruments of mobility, so more equivalent to GO or COME. But recognizing that they were interchangeable for Tashi made me realize that PAWS might very well have meant “motion” all along.

If it weren’t for the dysplasia revelation, I probably would have just rolled with it and reverted to PAW for everything, but I was thinking ahead to Tashi’s ability to communicate specifics about his pain, since he’s likely going to have a lot of it throughout his life. “I have something painful stuck in my paw” and “my hip is hurting” look the same from the outside, as evidenced by the amount of time I spent looking for a glass sliver in his paw during (what I now know was) his second hip injury. The ability to distinguish between them could be really useful.

So I decided to try to communicate that LEG and PAW were different things, by literally sitting down next to the wallboard and touching the relevant parts of his body and mine and repeating the words verbally and with buttons. He’s a little fussy about having his extremities — legs and paws and tail — touched, and protests it with very gentle application of teeth to hands, so this was not a thing I did for very long; I try to respect his wishes about his body as much as possible (though sometimes I do need to insist, like to deal with burrs or matted fur before they cause worse problems).

For more than two weeks there was no change, and I didn’t think the distinction was taking hold at all. And then five days ago (March 18) he suddenly started using PAW again, multiple times a day … while still using LEG at other times. So I’m now testing the theory that he’s saying, for example, PAW OUTSIDE when he wants me to open the door, and LEG OUTSIDE when he wants me to go with him, making the manipulation vs. motion distinction.


And that’s it for February. Here’s the board and plan as it stood on February 29 (71 buttons, click to enlarge):


FluentPet

I spent the whole latter half of February in a state of soundboard paralysis due to scarcity; FluentPet went out of stock on Connect buttons and bases and didn’t expect more until “sometime in April” … and since we’re going up north in very early April I was deeply anxious that my one chance at getting more equipment this year (without paying an extra US$120 in shipping, which … <choke>) was going to fall through. I had around 18 functional buttons unallocated, and Tashi already comprehended at least two dozen vocabulary words that weren’t on the board yet, possibly thirty or more — and (except for LEG) I remained paralyzed, unable to add any words for fear that I’d make the wrong decision about which ones to add and which to postpone for possibly an entire year.

I finally broke through this emotional stasis in early March and began adding buttons again (March buttons coming in next post). And then FP announced they would be shipping out Connect equipment again in March, so I was able to snag some — not as many as I’d truly like, because even with a discount they’re damned expensive, but enough to calm my anxiety brain somewhat.

FluentPet technical support has gone AWOL again, with only <crickets> as a response to my last two messages (it’s been well over a month already since the second one). When in mid-February I finally managed the hours required to go through two full 24-hour periods of camera footage (two random non-contiguous days selected from early February) and compare against the app’s recorded presses, I found that it missed 13.5% of presses on one day and 22.5% on the other. So, still terrible despite the “firmware update” that was supposed to address this problem. And still useless for scientific purposes. I really wonder how the UCSD scientists are handling this … but maybe that has something to do with why they’ve gone so quiet and don’t seem to be adding new volunteers to their studies.

On the other hand, the FP Guide community is pretty terrific. I’ve so enjoyed talking to and learning from other people who care about this for the same reasons I do, and passing along my experiences to help other people coming up behind me. (As an aside, I have good reason to believe that this community has a significantly higher percentage of autistics, both openly-identified and not, than the general population.)


Soundboard Logistics

Wall Mounting

As soon as Jak sent me a photo of the hextile edge pieces he was picking up for me in the States in February, I feared my Command strip-conserving attachment plan was doomed. I had never seen a picture of the edges unattached to the hextiles, and had imagined them as being identical straight pieces that connected to each side via the double jigsaw knobs in the center. But no, in fact they are angled pieces that go around the corners (two different styles for ‘inner’ or ‘outer’ corners, which is annoyingly wasteful because there are always more of the latter), and only really attach on one end; the other end just sort of loosely touches the tile jigsaw knob. So there is in fact no way to hang multiple tiles by the top edge pieces.

At least I figured this out in time to have Jak buy more Command strips before he came home, so that I had enough for two strips per tile. I had the tiles oriented on the wall with corners top and bottom, and straight sides; I placed the Command strips vertically along the outer side of the tiles, figuring that was the orientation closest to what they have been designed for. I spent a whole day ripping the board down (mangling parts of our wall paint underneath, and halfway-repairing it) and putting it back up again, but the good news is that it has held firm ever since.

So I guess the lesson here is: don’t try to cut corners, just do the thing that is known to work.

Labeling

I’ve been wanting to upgrade my button labels for some time now. One, because although the buttons are one and a half inches in diameter, the FluentPet labels are just one inch wide, which is awfully crowded. Anything written on them is difficult-to-impossible for our middle-aged and multiply-disabled eyes to read (moving the board to the wall instead of the floor helped with this, but it’s still a problem). And also I wanted to be able to use colors to help distinguish buttons from each other at a glance.

So in February, along with more buttons and tiles and edge pieces and Command strips, I had Jak bring back a cheap set of thirty alcohol-based colored permanent markers, some ultra-fine black pens, and several sheets of 1.25-inch round labels (Avery brand, ordered directly from the company, under the supposition that they would be better quality than off-brand Amazon options).

This experiment produced deeply mixed results.

The awesome part is that I realized I was having fun — fun! — drawing new labels. (I do a lot of things that I am in some way pleased with, but ‘fun’ is an elusive experience for me. Even things I like, such as writing or cooking, I mostly experience as ‘work’ with pleasing outcomes; the process itself is almost never ‘fun’. So this was, weirdly, a big deal.) Plus I was able to see that yes, larger labels (and thus larger text) and colored illustrations were going to be a big help.

The not-so-awesome part is that I ran into all kinds of logistical problems with the actual materials.

  • The FP buttons are slightly rounded on the top, which I think is a poor design choice; I also suspect this is why their labels are only one inch wide. Even the one-inch labels occasionally bubble up at an edge; the only way to get a larger label to fit without a pie slice-shaped bubble is to put a crease in it. Which I was prepared to do, but the “removable” adhesive on the labels I chose wouldn’t stay stuck down. Even after I creased it to conform to the button’s curve, over the next few hours it would bubble back up at multiple places.
  • I also chose “water-resistant film” labels instead of paper ones, knowing that they were going to be making a lot of contact with a damp nose, and also that it helps to be able to clean them off occasionally. (The FP labels are slick and hold up to light wiping with a damp sponge to remove grime.) But to my surprise, the labels seemed to have a nanometer-thick layer of paper over the ‘film’; this paper layer is what absorbed the ink, and the paper would dissolve under all but the lightest possible application of my brush markers. The film beneath mostly repelled the ink and so once the paper was damaged the label was ruined.
  • The colored caps of the ShuttleArt pens I bought bear very little resemblance to the color of the actual ink. I think the pens themselves are decent enough for my (very nonprofessional) purposes, but I had to keep testing and retesting colors because of the mismatch.

I decided I could probably work with the pens, but the labels were a total loss. I thought I would simply call Avery’s customer service and get them to point me to the best material and adhesive for my purposes; they had around twenty different options, so I figured something would work. But I ended up with the rudest and least helpful CSR I’ve run across in years, who 1) responded to my specific questions with information directly parroted off the web site, none of which actually answered anything and 2) informed me that my desires were unrealistic and no product could possibly satisfy them. It was as though her job description was literally to to ensure I never purchased anything from Avery ever again.

So … everything went on hold for two months. I have now ordered five free sample sheets from a different company, which I will try out with my markers and buttons as soon as we arrive in the States; assuming one of them works, I should have time to place and receive another order before we leave for Mexico again.

If the rude Avery rep is actually correct and nothing works … I have no further backup plan, because I am about 98% certain that she’s wrong. Cross that bridge if I get to it, I guess.

Published inNeurodivergencePets

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