Untrapping the mind: New kids camp focuses on using technology to talk

UAlberta and March of Dimes host inaugural camp for children who use augmentative and alternative communication

Laurie Wang - 26 August 2016

Ebony Arbeau describes her sister Melody-Anne as having a wrecking ball inside her head.

"Kids with special needs are trapped inside their own bodies. Imagine all the words piling inside them. Wrecking balls inside their heads!" says the 11-year-old who will be attending the first annual Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) Camp Alberta with her sister and parents this weekend.

Melody-Anne, 14, has cerebral palsy and uses an AAC device to communicate. She is non-verbal, tube-fed and in a wheelchair, but that doesn't stop her from letting people know what she's thinking and feeling.

"I feel excited/happy to meet new friends [at AAC Camp]," she says through her Accent augmentative communication device.

The University of Alberta's Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, alongside March of Dimes Canada, is proud to host the first AAC Camp Alberta. Children who use AAC devices to replace speech or writing will attend the three-day camp from August 26 to 28 at Easter Seals Camp Horizon in Bragg Creek and take part in various activities including arts & crafts, a treasure hunt, and even an Olympic torch relay. Parents and siblings, who play a big role in caregiving and support, will also join in on the fun with the campers.

"I think they are stronger than us mentally," says sister Ebony. "This camp is a great way to reinforce their skills in expressing how they feel through their device."

Each camper will be paired up with a graduate student in Speech-Language Pathology (SLP), Occupational Therapy (OT), or Physical Therapy (PT) from the University of Alberta's Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine. A team of volunteer professionals from across the province who specialize in AAC will provide training to the students before camp and supervise them as they work with the campers. Students have also been involved in planning activities for the camp.

"I am specifically planning a scavenger hunt, a relay race, and campfire songs. We are also conducting a research study on the camp, examining it as a learning experience for Rehab Med students," says Allison Ames, who just completed her first year in the MSc SLP program at UAlberta.

Melody-Anne Arbeau, 14, uses her AAC device to let
people know what she's thinking and feeling.

AAC is used by those with a wide range of speech and language impairments, including cerebral palsy, autism and Down syndrome. SLPs help people who need AAC devices learn how to use their device to effectively communicate.

"We use each client's strengths and abilities to carefully choose a device that will work best for their needs and lifestyle," says Britany Archer, UAlberta MSc SLP student.

Campers and their families will have the opportunity to hike, swim, do crafts, play games and sing around the campfire. Not only is the camp an opportunity for children with AAC devices to come together and meet new friends, it's also an opportunity for families to meet and connect.

"We thank Valerie Arbeau and her family for bringing the vision of AAC Camp Alberta to life and inviting us to be a host," says Karen Pollock, Chair, Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine, University of Alberta. "Our students get to work with children and teens and be part of the community."

Valerie and Scott Arbeau, Ebony and Melody-Anne's parents, decided to bring the camp to Alberta after the family attended a similar AAC Camp in Idaho - they have attended every year since 2012.

"We get to network with other families, share our trials, tribulations and joys - it's a win-win for everyone," Valerie says. "We are so grateful for how the University of Alberta and March of Dimes Canada committed to partnering and hosting. We are also grateful for our sponsors, including the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine, Alberta Consortium of Rehabilitative & Assistive Technology, Enterprise, and Calgary & Area Regional Collaborative Service Delivery. Without their generosity and support, this year's camp would not have been possible."

Valerie's hope is to make the AAC Camp more affordable in the future so that it can be accessible to even more families.

If that could happen, it would be Melody-Anne's favourite word: "Awesome!"

To support and give to future AAC Camps, please contact Brent Page at bpage@marchofdimes.ca.