“He’s a little Picasso,” says Susan Fidek of her 16-year-old son, Jonathan. “He loves to paint. I think he spent the majority of the day yesterday in the art room.”

Jonathan is part of a special group of kids who attend a one-week therapeutic summer camp through the Alvin Buckwold Child Development Program, which serves children between the ages of 0 and 18 who display or are at significant risk for developmental, cognitive and/or physical challenges.

Nausha Muc, speech language pathology graduate student volunteer, helps Jonathan with an art project.

Nausha Muc, speech language pathology graduate student volunteer, helps Jonathan with an art project.

The summer camp is an opportunity for kids who use augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) to get intense communication therapy in a fun and engaging setting.

“AAC is any kind of aided language,” says Jillian Morgan, speech language pathologist and camp coordinator. “Sign language, gestures and facial expression are considered alternative communication. Augmentative is when communication is augmented with pictures or a high-tech device.”

People with severe speech or language challenges rely on AAC to support or replace speech. For some, it can be the only way they can express themselves.

“Jonathan is non-verbal, so his form of communication is through facial expressions, eye blinks, smiles and head nods,” says his mother. “He uses an eye-gaze computer that detects the motion of his eyes and creates a cursor on the tablet screen, so whenever he’s looking on the screen, that’s where the cursor will move.”

This is Jonathan’s third year at camp, which he is attending with six children in the afternoon. Another five children attend the morning session.

“Camp is an opportunity for the kids to have intense, mass practice over the summer with their peers,” says Morgan. “Everyone at camp uses augmentative communication – the volunteers, staff and campers. It really normalizes the use and helps kids feel accepted and confident in their modes.”

While Jonathan is at camp, his mother participates in the parent program, which is led by a social worker. In the parent program, everything from support groups to AAC communication strategies and financial planning is covered.

“It’s a place where we can share our stories and not feel judged, because we’re all there for the same reason – we’re all looking after children with high needs and intellectual disabilities. It’s a great group,” says Fidek.

“Giving these parents the opportunity to get together and network with each other is an important part of our camp,” adds Morgan. “AAC is a big undertaking. It’s very family-focused, and it depends a lot on families driving the use of these AAC modes.”