Matthew Guggemos enjoys time with his girlfriend, Sara Featherstone, and (left to right) Ava Anderson, Featherstone’s 10-year-old daughter; and his daughters Naomi Guggemos, 8, and Emma, 3.
Name: Matthew Guggemos, MS, CCC-SLP
Position: Speech-language pathologist, Vallejo (Calif.) Unified School District; drummer for miRthkon
Hometown: Lansing, Mich.
Improvisation—we all know it's used in music, acting and business. But it's also imperative for communication, points out school-based speech-language pathologist Matthew Guggemos. In fact, the concept of improvisation is very much behind InnerVoice, the communication app he built for helping students with autism spectrum disorder. The app is based directly on his patent for interactive video self-modeling, which won the 2013 Mensa Research and Education Intellectual Benefit to Society Award.
"Everyone who speaks a language fluently improvises in some way—you have to access the vocabulary set and then apply the rules and the context," says Guggemos. "But the context is always changing. Kids with ASD don't naturally get that, and that's where we can step in and help them."
Guggemos is an accomplished jazz drummer.
And who better to teach improvisation than Guggemos? An accomplished jazz drummer who has played with Branford Marsalis and Eric Alexander, and now tours with his band, miRthkon, Guggemos has taken a career path that hasn't exactly been what you would call "planned." In fact, having a career was probably the farthest thing from his mind in the early 1990s as a high school student in Lansing, Mich. More involved with playing the drums than doing his homework, Guggemos admits that he was "that kid." You know the one—the type who's always in the back of the room drumming on his desk.
Although bright, he was not exactly a fan of academics and claims to have barely escaped high school with a diploma.
Still, his drumming skills helped him wiggle his way into Michigan State University, where he was recruited to play in the university's highly regarded jazz ensemble. He dabbled in classical music and then music therapy (neither of which really stuck), and also was recruited to help with a literacy program focused on people with dyslexia. It was something he had never done before and, much to his surprise, he liked it. So much, in fact, that after he transferred to Golden Gate University on an academic scholarship in 2000 to be closer to the San Francisco music scene (and ultimately to finish college), he found a job at the Scottish Rite Childhood Language Center, where he worked alongside an SLP. Although he took the job to help pay for school, the experience became so positive that when his supervisor suggested that he pursue a graduate degree in speech-language pathology after finishing his bachelor's, he agreed … after some initial hesitation.
"I liked the idea, but when I saw it was another four years, I wasn't so sure," he recalls. "But then the academic advisor said to me, ‘Well, four years from now is still four years from now, so why don't you just do it?' I thought that was the pithy way of putting it, so OK."
This time, the inner student in Guggemos truly emerged. Not only did he receive top grades in graduate school, but he did it while continuing to play late-night gigs at various venues to pay tuition. In fact, he recalls, the night before his 8 a.m. physiology and anatomy final, he was playing at the famous Yoshi's Jazz Club until well after midnight. Despite his jammed schedule, he graduated with his master's degree in 2007.
Today, Guggemos is a school-based SLP in Vallejo, Calif., an area still suffering the effects of a local naval base closure. He describes the environment as tough, with high crime rates and a low socioeconomic status, but he's drawn to it because of the challenge it presents.
When he joined the school system, most of his students were on the autism disorder spectrum. At first he battled to help reduce their echolalia, but he also noticed many of them had an affinity for technology, especially tablets and smartphones.
And then he got an idea. He began taking pictures of his students and using MotionPortrait's PhotoSpeak app, designed for entertainment, to animate and incorporate sequenced mouth movements to a pre-recorded message. When the student saw the recorded response and modeled it appropriately, Guggemos knew he was on to something. After many trials and refinements, and the help of fellow SLP Lois Jeanie Brady, InnerVoice was born.
"I felt like this was going to provide an opportunity to model these critical skills from a source that they trust and know—themselves," says Guggemos.
And he's going to keep improvising, keeping his fingers in all that interests him—speech-language pathology, working with students with autism and, of course, music. He already has his sights on the next version of InnerVoice and is brainstorming even more creative ways to teach social communication to his students.
But first, he's going on a two-week European tour with his band. He'll tune back into his students—and app development—when he's back into the rhythm of school.