Summer camp helps families, kids with special needs communicate

August 12, 2016 - 6:00am

Each time Kian presses the big red button, a woman’s voice from inside the hot-plate-sized device intones “Go Ducks.”

During the course of the Alternative and Augmentative Communication Camp, hosted by the Communication Disorders and Sciences Program at the College of Education, he will press it hundreds of times. “Go Ducks. Go Ducks. Go Ducks.”

Fortunately, no one in attendance — the Duck himself among them — seems to mind. O Heroes Jimmie Swain and Juwaan Williams even lay the phrase down in unison on the device, to Kian’s endless delight. It can be hard to tell what he’s thinking or experiencing, but joy translates pretty well.

An 11-year-old with developmental disabilities, Kian was one of eight kids at the inaugural communication camp, designed to help children with communication issues and their families. Each has access to cutting-edge technology that enables the sort of back-and-forth that most of us take for granted: “How are you? I am hungry. Would you like a sandwich? Yes.”

But these aren’t the kinds of devices you can learn just by sitting down with an instruction manual in your lap for a few hours. You first must change how you think about communication, which is why siblings and caregivers alike joined youngsters at the camp.

Kian’s grandfather, Dale Riedel, said he had no education or training in how to help Kian communicate. He believes the camp, combined with continued support, might change that.

“I am confident that Kian will be improving continually now. Progress to this point has been slow going, but I think we will be able to make significant progress,” he said.

The devices themselves range from the simple, like Kian’s big-button device, to rugged, tablet-like contraptions that simplify the linking of words and phrases. Some even are able to translate eye movement into speech. If you’re thinking of astrophysicist Stephen Hawking’s computerized voice, you’re on the right track, though these are much less complex.

Jennifer Meyer, director of clinical education for Communication Disorders and Sciences, said the campers and families learn much more than just how to use the fancy devices.

“The activities encourage initiation of communication by the camper and focus on using strategies not just for campers to be able to communicate, but so they want to communicate,” she said.

As with many clients at the multidisciplinary HEDCO Clinic, some of these families are out of options in getting the help they need. The clinic picks up where other avenues end, and, because it charges on a sliding scale, families don’t get turned away. It’s a model that the recent $6 million gift from the Quest Fund will help continue as the clinic tries to help more Oregon families navigate these challenges. Clinic staffers even hope to make it a “real” camp someday, complete with overnight stays on campus.

Contending with communication problems at this level requires a certain level of psychosocial support, which the communication program isn’t necessarily equipped to provide. Fortunately, their neighbors across the hall in couples and family therapy do exactly that, so the programs enjoyed a mutually beneficial collaboration for the camp. One program learns from the other and vice-versa.

“Long-term, we really do see how other programs, such as special education, for example, could also be incorporated into our camp, providing education and training to our family members,” said Jeanine Geisler, clinical assistant professor for Communication Disorders and Sciences. “It would also be a really nice example for our students, who are training to become speech-language pathologists. In other settings, there’s this huge piece that is inter-professional practice. … The sooner they can have those experiences of collaborating and working together, the better.”

—By Cody Pinkston, College of Education