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Over the past fourteen years, Clay Hadden (’06 MS SLP) has worked with children who face an array of speech and language delays, with a focus on augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) methods.

Clay Hadden (’06 MS SLP), a speech-language pathologist based in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, remembers the day a professor held up an early model iPod during his time as a student and forecasted how technology could change the future of the profession.

“We were already talking about how we’re going to use this technology,” Hadden said. “That made me think, ‘I’m kind of a tech guy; I like learning about this type of stuff.’”

Over the past fourteen years, Hadden has worked with children who face an array of speech and language delays, with a focus on augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) methods. AAC systems are made up of picture communication symbols, words, and/or letters that allow a client to communicate everything from basic wants and needs to thoughts, feelings, and ideas. Some AAC systems are printed on a paper while others are loaded on tablet devices, computers or even dedicated AAC devices.

In 2016, Hadden launched his practice, Ready, Set, Talk, and a corresponding YouTube channel to enhance the client experience. Hadden, who uses a technique called video modeling, initially produced videos for sessions and assigned them as supplemental work after appointments.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, shuttered his practice until South Carolina temporarily approved teletherapy for the profession. Hadden turned to YouTube in order to best connect with clients with whom he could no longer meet with in person. He dubbed the channel Mister Clay, a nod to the name his pediatric clients call him in the office.

“I treated my days like they were workdays,” Hadden said of his time relaunching the YouTube channel while his office was closed. “I just tried to figure it out.”

Since the onset of the pandemic in early March, Hadden has debuted at least one video per week, ranging from themed word lists for speech therapy to videos that emphasize core vocabulary words. Many of his videos are designed to normalize use of AAC communication methods and their corresponding system of symbols among clients, such as a child diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Hadden said it’s also important to normalize symbols seen on an AAC device among typically developing children in order to reduce stigma those with speech and language delays might face.

“That’s the goal,” Hadden said. “And if it means there’s a video where I’m going fishing and pull a chicken out of a pond, then that’s what I’ll do.”

Hadden’s interest in theater and the arts is apparent when you watch his videos. They have garnered thousands of views since March and have spread beyond the digital walls of his practice.

Hadden said Mister Clay has reinvigorated his work as a speech-language pathologist.

“Having this as an outlet during this time—it’s the happiest I’ve been in my career in a long time.”

Hadden said his social media presence has grown organically, and he hopes the videos reflect values similar to those held by long-running children’s television show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, such as being a calming presence for clients.

“I think television, for example, can be a wonderful tool for language if you’re doing it right,” Hadden said. “It inspires kids if you’re doing it the right way. […] Mostly, I want the kids to benefit.”

Hadden said financial barriers to access AAC devices can prevent a child from making strides, and sometimes, parents can feel intimidated from being unfamiliar with the device. Videos can make instructional materials more playful and easier to access.

“People sometimes see this as work, and it’s not. It shouldn’t be,” Hadden said. “It should be fun first; that’s what language is. […] You don’t have to be perfect at it; you can be silly and weird and fun.”

During his time as a master’s student, Hadden recalled the various practicum sites that influenced his decision to work in pediatrics.

“I didn’t want to work with pediatrics; I wanted to work with adults,” Hadden explained. “Everybody who I did a peds rotation with, they were like ‘you’ll work with kids.’ […] It was cool to see when that seed was planted.”

The speech-language pathology program’s reputation spurred Hadden to apply to UNC-Chapel Hill.

“My understanding of it was that it was the best program in the Southeast,” Hadden said. “I was lucky enough to get accepted.”

Subscribe to Mister Clay on YouTube. The Division of Speech and Hearing Sciences is housed in the Department of Allied Health Sciences. In spring 2020, U.S. News & World Report ranked its master’s program as #8 in the country.