Pacific’s Department of Speech-Language Pathology has partnered with the California Department of Education’s Diagnostic Center, Central California to offer an Augmentative-Alternative Communication (AAC) Camp.
“An augmentative-alternative communication device is any device that helps somebody communicate,” said Benjamin Reece ’01, ’08, MS, CCC-SLP, director of clinical education and assistant clinical professor of speech-language pathology. “The devices that we focus on at the AAC camp are dynamic speech generating devices.”
These touch-screen devices typically have an icon-based system, allowing individuals to generate sentences by selecting from a series of icons.
“The weeklong camp is specifically designed for clients who have recently been prescribed this device,” Professor Reece explained. “We create a full immersion experience for them where they are encouraged to use it to communicate for the full three to four hours each day that they are at the camp.”
The model for the AAC camp was developed by the Diagnostic Center, Central California in Fresno. The center has been offering AAC camps for 10 years and has served more than 150 clients ranging in age from 3 to 22.
“Millions of Americans experience communication difficulties that are so severe they do not have a functional way to communicate,” said the center’s speech-language pathologist, Michelle Austin, MA, CCC-SLP. “It is imperative that we build a communication system to support all forms of communication, including social language. The focus of teaching AAC language is not on the equipment, but on the opportunities we have to communicate.”
Professor Reece worked closely with Austin and the center’s education specialist, Laura Lavery, MA, to bring the camp to Stockton. This marks the second year the camp was held at the Scottish Rite Childhood Language Disorders Center.
At the start of the week, each client was assigned a team that included a typically developing peer, a speech-language pathology (SLP) graduate student and a practicing speech-language pathologist. As a team, they rotated through the different activity centers. This year, the School Health Corporation lent Pacific a TAPit, a 42-inch touch-screen interactive learning station that was the focal point of group activities. Professor Reece emphasizes the importance of cooperative exploration: “The nature of the camp is that we have this communication tool and we are all trying to learn it together.”
This is the fourth year that speech-language pathologist Kilian Graciano ’98, ’99, MA, CCC-SLP has volunteered to help with these camps. One memorable interaction she had was with a 9-year-old client who had nonverbal autism.
“Throughout the whole week, we encouraged him to practice using his AAC device,” Graciano said. “He was uninterested in using the iPad to communicate and when he did use it, he became frustrated. We modeled using the device repeatedly in hopes that he would realize that the iPad could help him communicate with others.”
On the last day of camp, a group of wildlife naturalists brought reptiles and birds. “When the animal experience was over, the naturalists started packing up the animals to get ready to go,” Graciano said. “My student brought me his iPad. He had independently created the sentence, ‘More big yellow snake please.’ It was so thrilling to see that he finally understood the iPad could help him communicate. He made the sentence over and over until they brought out the big yellow snake for him to see one more time.”
“It is extremely rewarding to watch how much fun the clients have and how much their confidence in communicating grows throughout the camp. All in all, the experience is priceless.”
– Tierney O’Mara ’17, ’18
For Tierney O’Mara ’17, ’18, this was her third summer participating as a student clinician. “One of my favorite memories from camp was playing hide-and-goseek with my client last summer,” she said. “It was through this game that she remained engaged and used her AAC device to initiate communication. She communicated whether it was my turn or her turn, what number the ‘seeker’ should count to and when she wanted to play another round.”
Not only do the clients benefit from the AAC camp, students and SLP professionals have a unique opportunity to gain experience working with clients who utilize these communication devices. “The field of speech-language pathology has a broad spectrum of areas we are responsible to know,” Graciano said. “It is important to keep updated with experiences and knowledge to enhance our ability to address the full scope of our practice.”
By Anne Marie H. Bergthold