Day camps are an integral part of summer for many B.C. kids, but those with special needs often find themselves left out.
AAC refers to Augmentative and Alternative Communication.
The children at this camp use computer-like devices to communicate, and the camp is packed with resources and educators to help both the kids and their parents flourish while using them.
“The actual talker is a device — it could be on your phone, it could be on your iPad — where they speak for you,” camp co-founder Joe Kwan explained.
“The whole idea is to create an inclusive environment where educators, specialists and other professionals can come in and share strategies with the families to implement at home and in the community.”
Kwan and his wife Joyce Lo started the camp three years ago to better support their 11-year-old son, who is minimally verbal, after they experienced a similar event in Idaho and realized there was nothing like it in B.C.
The camp has grown to support 16 campers and their families, and provides one-to-one support through volunteers with professional backgrounds ranging from education to speech-language pathology to therapy.
“Children with special needs or disabilities, when they are in a group setting, a lot of times they are on the outside. And sometimes they are brought in for inclusion, but we do find a lot of times they are alone,” Lo said.
“What we do want to create here for camp is an inclusive environment where they can be part of the group where everybody is the same, they are not alone, everybody uses the same device and everybody speaks the same language — they’re accepted for who they are.”
Jaclyn Fairburn and her eight-year-old son Erick learned about the camp three years ago, and have been coming ever since.
Like other kids his age, her son is energetic, full of laughter and loves sports and hanging out with friends.
But she said as a non-verbal child it’s easy for him to become isolated. Both the AAC device and the camp have had a huge impact on their lives.
“It’s huge, it’s life-changing actually. To know that there’s a camp like this, that it does exist and it’s so successful. He thrives, he looks forward to it every year he gets to make friends.”
“Erick is really expressive, he’s very engaging, laughing, that sort of thing, so this gets across his needs and his wants,” she added. “It can be very challenging, and people often assume what he needs, and that sometimes isn’t accurate, and this gives him a chance to say what he wants to say.”
While the week-long camp gives children a chance to thrive, Fairburn said it’s equally important for parents.
Specialists and professionals lead education sessions where caregivers can learn strategies to support their children at home, along with new information on things like literacy programs.
Parents are also able to connect with one another and share their own experiences and strategies.
That’s a big deal for parents who may feel lost and alone as they try and navigate supporting a non-verbal child — something that doesn’t come with an instruction manual.
“They tell you that your child is having speech difficulties and they suggest this and they say here you go and figure it out from there,” Fairburn said.
“They don’t tell you that the school might not have training on it, that the teachers might not have training on it, how do you get training, who do you speak to.”
After a week of mixing and mingling, educational sessions and fun afternoon activities and excursions — all using the AAC devices — the Panda camp will conclude Saturday with a special event to celebrate the participants and a highlight reel slideshow.
But the work continues year-round, Kwan said, in the hopes of developing both a community of parents, and a broader social understanding of kids like theirs who are a little bit different.
“We want society at large to understand, to know how to be more inclusive, create a more inclusive environment — whether that be a classroom, at school, at home, in community,” he said.
“Even though a person doesn’t speak, it doesn’t meant they don’t have something to say,” Fairburn added.