Sunday, June 19, 2016

Bryer's AAC Camp

There are lots of things that are really hard about having a child that's 'high maintenance,' which is not to be confused with the huge amount of blessings that also come from having a special needs angel in our home 24/7.  When one of those huge blessings come along, I love to share!  So.... Let me introduce you to AAC Camp!  (Alternative and Augmentative Communication Camp)

Approximately 40 campers came together from the Northwest United States and Canada that all use something called a communication device, often referred to as a 'talker.'  It's similar to an iPad that's used to talk.  Some kids have multiple disabilities and some kids are only challenged by speech.  The campers' spoken language each vary from completely non-verbal to saying their own words and sentences that may be harder for the untrained ear to understand, or expanding on the thoughts they can't physically put into words. 
Bryer is one of the latter.  We understand nearly everything she says, and most people that are around her for an hour or two catch on to her language and vocabulary, but in the meantime, it's been helpful to have a communication device help bridge that gap, especially with her starting school this fall.  One problem - I didn't understand the potential, how to help her use it, how to program it, or how to use it in every day activities.  This camp covered all of these bases and so much more! 

Let me introduce you to Bryer's very favorite part of camp - her camp counselor, Jackie.  Most of the camp counselors are grad students studying speech therapy.  It is no coincidence that Bryer and Jackie were matched up together.  As nervous as I was about leaving her, these two were fast friends and away they went, leaving me to try to figure out what to do with my day in between parent trainings.  Jackie will be an amazing speech therapist someday soon!  She is so intuitive, patient, willing to learn right along with the kids, and so dedicated to details!  She was hooked right away to Bryer's sense of humor and personality. 

The mornings were filled with stations.  On the last day we got to come for Family Day so Bryer could show us what she learned.  It was a big hit playing games while Bryer used her 'talker' to give directions, ask questions, and interact. 

The stations were Games (and therapy dogs), Drama, Music and Movement, and Computers. 

Another favorite part was the afternoon activities... Square dancers performed for the kids and included them in dancing, they went swimming, and the BSU football players even came to play one day!  It was touching to see these tough guys in uniform cheer the kids on as they made it through the obstacle course, or push their wheelchairs down to the touchdown cones. 
Another afternoon activity... A beauty pageant!  Bryer isn't one for getting dressed up, but she did get her nails painted and her wheelchair decked out to meet a pageant queen! 

Her least favorite part of camp was the Drama Station, as she doesn't like getting dressed up or messing with things on her head.  It was here that she learned to navigate on her talker to say, "I need to go to the bathroom," just to play hookie from drama!  This tactic has since become popular when she's done shopping at the grocery store, or during therapy when she needs a break! 

She does have a bossy side and on family day she loved telling her brother to put on the 'brown hat,' with her talker. 
Bowling on her command of ready, set, "GO!"  She also loved playing the color game where she would tell Jackie which colored dot on the floor to go to next while Jackie pushed her around in circles from color to color.  Again, that bossy side coming out! 
Computer time with her favorite camp counselor! 
She used a big paint roller to help make this big teepee with the other kids, which she showed off to us on family day. 
Adaptive painting, with marbles... She could push on one side of the tray to make the marbles roll through the paint to the other side, and then back the other way. 
They did a scavenger hunt using talking buttons to tell them where to go to find the next clue. 
*You'll also notice that Bryer is wearing Jackie's name tag in this picture.  She's a goof and likes to change names often.  It was the best compliment she could give Jackie to want to be her for the day!

This is how Bryer was after picking her up from swimming one afternoon - and really every day at the end of camp.  Her brain was full and she was exhausted! 

I can't say that I didn't feel the same!  While she was doing her thing, I was soaking in as much as I could too.  They had parent trainings for an hour or so each morning and again each afternoon.  Everything from stretching your child's vocabulary and sentence length to learning to use the talker in everyday situations.  They had a class on programming, and another with questions for the doctor.  They welcomed guest speakers, and it was so refreshing to network with other parents that are in the same boat! 

These kids are amazing!  A few of the campers use 'Eye Gaze' to access their talkers.  The machine tracks their eyes while they look at the screen to tell you what they want to say!  Another boy in a wheelchair doesn't have control of his upper body and uses his toes to point to what he wants to say on his talker.  At one point he held a craft he made in between his toes on one foot and then used his other set of toes to tell about it!  I was in awe watching these kids! 

When we first got Bryer's talker over a year ago, we used auditory scanning.  Her talker would go through choices (quietly) and she would hit a button when it got to the one she wanted and her talker would say it out loud.  Her eye sight and motor functions have improved so much that now she points with her finger to what she wants to say, which is much quicker and more efficient.  We are learning to navigate between pages for different activities and situations, but she's gotten very comfortable with her 'Quick Fires' which are phrases she uses on a regular basis:
I have to go to the bathroom.
I am hungry.  Can you get me something to eat?
Go away please. (Which is very useful when her smothering siblings are around!)
Come here please.
Can you give me some choices please?
I want to play!
I am tired.

The very, very best part of camp has been watching her own vocal vocabulary grow!  That's the ultimate goal - for the kids to use their own voice if/when they are capable.  Prior to camp, this would have been a typical conversation:

Bryer (with her own voice): More hungry Mom!
Me:  Ok.  I'll warm up some chicken enchiladas for you.

Here's how a conversation went this past week after camp.

Bryer (with talker, trying to copy as it said it): I am hungry.  Can you get me something to eat?
Me: Yes.  What do you want me to fix you?
Bryer (with talker): Can you give me some choices please?
Me: Ok.  Do you want me to warm up lasagna or chicken enchiladas?
Bryer (with her own voice): MOM!  Chicken enchiladas yucky! 

*I have been giving her chicken enchiladas for years and she has never once told me that she didn't like them! 

This week she also got to 'call' the Twister game for her siblings.  In her game section of her talker we created buttons for Right Hand, Left Hand, Right Foot, and Left Foot.  We'll practice navigating back to the colors page, but for now it was her turn to call out the body part and I would call out the color. 

She has WORDS - real, live words - that she can voice her opinion, needs, and share what is going on in that smart brain of hers!  That is the power and miracle of communication, however it comes about!