A three-day camp in Manitoba is giving young people who are non-verbal or have speech challenges a chance to connect with others who communicate the same way they do — with the aid of tablets and a specialized app.
Camp yAAC (the “AAC” stands for “augmentation and alternative communication”) encourages its campers to use iPads and an app, also known as an AAC device, to converse with each other.
The campers select their words using symbols and characters on the app, which then speaks the words out loud.
Camper Marianne Blandigneres, 14, used her AAC device to say that the activity she is most excited for at camp is swimming — and also the food, she added, laughing.
At camp, she and her friends can communicate in ways they don’t get to elsewhere, says a speech language pathologist who works at the camp.
“If they don’t have a voice, you don’t get to see their personalities shine, and their sense of humor and their intelligence,” said Mary-Alex Willer of the Open Access Resource Centre, the non-profit Manitoba organization that runs the camp. It offers assistive technology, training and other resources to people with communication challenges and those who help them.
The annual day camp at Camp Manitou in the rural municipality of Headingley, just west of Winnipeg, is open to children and young adults from the ages five to 21.
After a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, it returned this week, running from Wednesday to Friday.
When it was on hold, the campers missed being with others who use a device to communicate, and having “an opportunity to feel just like a peer would, every day talking with others, where that form of communication is just the typical form of communication ,” said Lindsey Sharpe, a speech and language pathologist who is on the camp’s volunteer committee.
Willer says the second time camp was canceled due to the pandemic, volunteers and staff sent campers “camp boxes.”
“We knew the kids were missing it, so we prepared a take-home … [box] full of activities, [like] putting together s’mores, rock painting, and things that we could have done at camp,” she said.
Giving time, space to communicate
Being stuck at home due to COVID-19 restrictions, with people they know well, made most kids less likely to use their devices and more likely to rely on other ways to communicate, said Enaka Melanson, a support worker at the camp.
“Think of when your children are young and they want something and they just make a sound, and that sound means ‘cup.'”
People who are non-verbal and use a communication device to speak face many challenges, she said, including simply communicating with someone who doesn’t need a communication device.
“We don’t give them enough time or space to communicate clearly because it can take a long time to find the right words on an iPad,” Melanson said.
School staff shortages are another issue, she said, as support workers play an important role in helping kids communicate with their peers away from camp too.
“There’s not enough support workers. You need someone who’s able to help them navigate this effectively to remind them to use these tools.… [Otherwise]they can be given simpler tasks than they are able to accomplish,” Melanson said.
The camp relies on volunteers, who have experience working with people who use AAC apps and meet several times a year to plan, Willer said.
“We use some of the activities from Camp Manitou like canoeing and [the] scavenger hunt … but all the other extra activities that are specific for kids who use speech communicating devices are planned by our volunteers,” she said.
Most camps use an app called Proloquo2Go AAC, which lets them press symbols to get a list of options and announces the selected words.
The app is customizable — for example, names of friends and family members can be added, along with the names of favorite shows and more.
The speech and language pathologists at the camp spend time helping each camper add more personalized words and sentences to their devices, which they can practice using in everyday speech.
Families get to join campers on the last day, giving them an opportunity to learn how to make good use of the app as well, Melanson said.
The volunteers incorporate the app into all of the camp activities, from games to skits and crafts.
“They have made a puppet theater, they have made all the visuals that go along with all these activities,” said Willer. “They just put in a ton of time.”
The camp clearly makes an impact on the campers, Sharpe said — during its two-year pandemic hiatus, parents begged them to resume the camp, despite the risk of COVID-19.
“They’ve told us that their kids come home super happy after camp each day, and that they will share stories about their camp day using their communication device,” she said.
“Even at school all year long, they’re talking about camp and asking when they can come back.”