An Interview With Social Language Expert Pamela Ely
As a relatively new area to the field of speech and language pathology, the treatment of social pragmatic disorders requires a keen eye and understanding of language from the perspective of more than nouns, articulators and verbs. Social cognitive and social language skills involve the coordination of many skills such as, perspective taking, nonverbal body language, humor, figurative language, conversation skills, and social connectedness. Today, Pamela Ely, M.S., CCC-SLP shares her clinical experience and passion for this very complex and critical area of speech and language.
As the owner and founder of the Ely Center in Auburndale, Massachusetts, Pamela has created a clinic dedicated to social cognitive development. Through treatment, evaluations, consultations and advocacy, Pamela’s specialized concentration has become a beacon for parents looking for answers to those sometimes challenging questions of friendship, bullying and social connectedness. She talks with us today about the life-changing experience that brought her into the field, how her understanding and interest in social cognition evolved and why knowing about this area of development is essential for the success of many children who are seen for speech and language therapy.
Q: Pamela, how you came into the field of speech pathology and decide to focus your practice on the social cognitive aspects of language?
A: Well, the Ely center is named after my dad, who was a stroke victim. That is how I got really interested in the process of motor speech disorders. My first degree was in economics and marketing, which has really helped me with the business and marketing side. When my father got sick, that is when I decided to focus on healthcare.
When I went to school, I had no idea what I was going to do. I though I’d work with stroke victims and that would be my career. I dabbled in so many different aspects in the field of speech therapy. I started as a school-based clinician and needed school-based hours. I was seeing a lot of autism disorders and social cognitive challenges and conditions that present around those diagnosis That then grew into something more.
A colleague of mine at Boston University was running a social group and invited me to come look so I did and I said, “This is really interesting.” I call her the wind beneath my wings. She really was the pioneer of social cognitive skill building through a language lens. I learned from her and found that there was so much need, the waitlist was 200 long. So I started doing social cognitive thinking and got trained by Michelle Garcia Winner. Everything fell into place when I started addressing the social emotional skills I found in my students who had a ton of problems in expressive language.
Q: Tell us about the treatment and experience of a child that receives therapy at the Ely Center. We know the center is based on the principles of Michelle Garcia Winner’s teaching but what other aspects of language are being addressed, and how?
A: We are known for the social cognitive pieces but we really dabble in a lot of areas. We see a lot of children with disorganized output, some subset with basic articulation difficulties. We provide tutor supports, utilize the Story Grammar Marker for expressive language and promote Speech Buddies in our practice.
A number of clients have a packed program with individual and group therapy. They might have an hour of artic therapy utilizing Speech Buddies one on one and then to go group and have support from one of the facilitators.
Q: The staff consists of SLPs, occupational therapists, psychologists and a special education specialist. What is each of their roles in teaching social communication skills? How do all of those disciplines relate to and come together to teach social communication skills?
A: At Ely the center, all staff are given the same training module so that everyone is thinking from a language processing perspective. Even if not formally trained, they are trained by us. The benefit and beauty of these specialist is that their lens, though they do the same activity, their lens towards that activity is different. So the goals and benchmarks are the same but the way they are viewing that student is from more emotional (how much anxiety is playing into it?), possibly a sensory standpoint (are the lights in the building distracting because they are florescent?) or cognitive (does the student understand the concept?) That many different lenses creates an environment for learning and a much faster pace of progress than we see in other environments.
Q: How do you promote generalization of social skills from a structured, therapy environment into the real-word, home and school?
A: Our carryover is equally important to the hour therapy. We do a lot of interfacing with client families, looking at the client as a whole and where they come from. We do a lot of parent training and email follow up with carryover points for social and expressive language carryover. We also work with that student’s outside professionals, teacher, outside SLP or psychologist.
A typical group session is followed up with an email follow-up in 24 hours. Something like, “today’s group looked like this” or “this was the book or website we looked at”. They always talk about take away and what can be done at home, like a game. We try to give them a specific skill to practice. With little ones, for example, they practice “walk by and say hi” so they know it’s important to talk but and say names. We send video follow up as well, explaining games we played so that family at home can see it and the student can say “hey I did that, that was me” in the moment. Kids rely on kinesthetic proprioceptive feedback.
Q: Finally, there seems to be a lack of education about the need for this area of speech and language, do you see that and what can we do to educate insurance companies, schools, parents or other service providers and professionals about this social cognitive deficits and the importance of social language therapy?
(On parents) There is so much impact far and wide because of lack of education. We do a lot of grassroots outreach for families to educate and help their children or nieces or nephews.
(On SLPs) 1995 was the first time I ever heard of a social problem, and I said, “that’s not under my domain” and soon after we realized that it was. I’m talking to folks who might not have, even 5 years ago, had a course in social pragmatic language but it was never something that we had a curriculum for. I tell them they didn’t take a course in this, you shouldn’t know it. I say to them, pragmatics isn’t yet a teachable course but we hope it is someday.
(On school curriculum) Yes there is greater education, because of litigation. I sat on the Drakut case; a landmark case where a school was charged with not provided a social education to a student. And because of that, the child didn’t have the social where-with-all to make friends. Because of that landmark case, my phone was ringing of the hook saying, “we need programming!” Now I get calls for programming from pre-k through high school. When you have a special education direction who is buying in at that level, you have carte blanche of giving them the whole schpeel about the work we do.
(In education) there is a time and a place for social curriculum over a more play-based curriculum. Both are very valuable but appropriate and accessible to the child in their development.
People are now really equally excited to work with us.
Finally, of the work that she does, Pamela says:
I have the best job ever.