The Art of Conversation Not Lost Thanks to Two Washington College Students
Two student-athletes team up off the field to further one young man's conversational skills.
Washington College students Erik Parry and Kain Domenech have much in common. Both are juniors, both play Varsity Lacrosse, and both make daily phone calls to Gabriel, a local man who is on the autism spectrum, in an effort to help extend his conversational skills.
The teammates began building a relationship with 34-year-old Gabriel in November 2021, after a request to get involved with this family was circulated to all team captains via the College’s Student Athletic Advisory Committee (SAAC). When approached by the lacrosse captain, both Parry and Domenech agreed immediately, largely based on one more commonality – both have older brothers who have disabilities, and therefore they understood the benefits, and also saw an opportunity to do some good.
The objective for Parry and Domenech was pretty straightforward – to get Gabriel to extend his conversational skills through daily calls with them.
“The goal is to get Gabriel to not just tell us what he’s doing, watching or listening to, but to get him to go into more detail and be more descriptive,” said Domenech, a native of Severna Park, MD, who calls Gabriel every evening during the week. “So if we talk about a sporting event, we’re trying to get him to tell us who scored a touchdown or a homerun, what the final score was, or where the game was played. If it’s a show, maybe it’s who’s the bad guy, what’s happening to the main characters, things like that. It’s about encouraging Gabriel to further explain things.”
And the need was real, as the pandemic caused a loss of routine and much-needed social stimulation for Gabriel. As a result, he began to retreat, largely turning to screen time – TV shows, movies, podcasts – as his sole source of stimuli. “He was really left with no opportunity to exercise the social skills that are so important,” said Sandra, Gabriel’s mother, explaining that while he is on the autism spectrum, he has always been very verbal and social. The isolation was not good for him.
“We thought that if we could find one or two people who could call him regularly for just a few minutes and discuss with him things that he’s interested in, that it would be really beneficial,” she said. It is through these daily calls that Parry and Domenech are encouraging him to extend the details of his narratives, while also offering friendship.
“Kain and Erik have exceeded our expectations,” she added. “Both of them have figured out how to have a real conversation with him.” Their separate calls also bracket his day, building social interactions into his routine, which is important to him, and shrinking his screen time.
“It sounds simplistic, but we really wanted Gabriel to have some guy friends, and Erik and Kain have provided that,” said Brandon, Gabriel’s father. “He wants to tell somebody what he’s watching or about the podcast he listened to, and we want him to have someone to talk to besides his parents.”
Connecting Gabriel with college students was his mother’s idea. “I just thought we have the College right here, and this could be a really easy way for a couple of students to get involved,” said Sandra, a Chestertown resident. Nicole, who works with the family to coordinate Gabriel’s activities, handled the rest, reaching out to the Office of Student Affairs to see what could be arranged. Before either student reached out to Gabriel, they were first interviewed by Nicole and then introduced to the whole family via Zoom.
These daily conversations between Gabriel, Kain and Erik typically focus on shows, podcasts, or sporting events. Each tries try to keep him talking for at least 10 minutes, though building up to that took time.
“At the beginning it was mostly us getting to know each other,” explained Parry, a West Palm Beach, FL resident. “A lot of the time, those calls would only last a few minutes. If I asked Gabriel something that he didn’t want to talk about, he’d just say ‘OK talk to you tomorrow’ and would hang up.”
Domenech’s early experience with the evening call was similar but given their family histories, said he and Parry were both prepared to put in the time needed to win Gabriel over. “It was a trust thing and we knew it would take a bit, but once he realized we weren’t going away, he finally opened up and now it’s just rapid fire.”
Parry noted that they have also adjusted their approach, knowing that sometimes he will try to end the call early. “Now I know to say, ‘Hey, first I want to hear more about the podcast you listened to today,’ instead of letting him just shut it down.”
Sandra has also been impressed with how the students have adapted and figured out how best to reach the goal of extending the conversation. “Kain has found that it’s better to let Gabriel talk first and report on what he’s done that day, and then he will go back and pick up threads for further conversation,” she said.
Gabriel’s parents are seeing progress as a result of these interactions, and also note that he seems happier. “Talking daily with Kain and Erik has been good for Gabriel, but Kain and Erik also seem engaged and I think they are getting their own satisfaction from this relationship,” said Sandra.
Parry and Domenech couldn’t agree more, and both are hoping to continue the relationship with Gabriel beyond the end of this academic year because the phone calls are something they enjoy and look forward to.
“Initially the reason we both wanted to do this was to help out, because we know from personal experience that it can be a tough situation,” said Domenech. “Gabriel’s parents thought it might be a burden for us, calling every day, but it’s the least we can do because we both know the challenges they have. They’re really great people and Gabriel is pretty awesome too.”
“Helping Gabriel out is just second-nature,” echoed Parry. “It’s an opportunity that fell into my lap and it’s great because it’s something that I really care about, which is having a positive impact on someone within the disability community here on the Shore. It’s an opportunity to do better.”
“The boys have gone above and beyond what we asked them to do,” Sandra said. “We are just so pleased with what they’re doing.”