Capital Area IU 15: 'Bear hunt' provides practice for communications technology

Assistive technology is opening new worlds for children with speech and communications barriers, but employing it in real life is not as easy as it looks on TV.

Capital Area IU 15 bridged the gap with a bear hunt – not a real hunt, but a bear hunt-themed camp in a shopping mall that helped children, families, and speech therapists get comfortable with the practical uses of AAC, or augmentative & alternative communication, devices.

“It’s really amazing,” said CAIU Preschool Speech Pathologist Jill Bradley. “It’s like learning to talk again for everyone.”

Let’s Talk AAC Camp, funded through a CAIU internal grant competition seeking innovative initiatives, addressed multiple barriers to using assistive technology:

* AAC is not one-size-fits-all. Different children need devices with different capabilities.

* Children, families, and even speech pathologists need real-world practice to incorporate devices into everyday life.

* Devices display many icons and letters. Building mastery through a planned approach encourages parents to go beyond the basics and utilize all the communications capabilities available.

Over a Friday evening and Saturday in April 2018, preschool-aged children practiced finding core words on their boards, while parents learned how to use the devices in varied situations. The “bear hunt” theme provided the hook for fun learning – turning a pretend campfire on and off, requesting marshmallows for s’mores, placing Teddy Graham crackers in tents.

At Capital City Mall, children and families interacted with store staff and mall security as they pursued a scavenger hunt and helped build two Build-A-Bear teddy bears. Build-A-Bear employees pooled their money to donate the cost for the bears the campers assembled, and both bears were raffled off to the campers.

Mall staff and customers seemed delighted to engage with the new guests.

“These vendors are now experienced in seeing that people can come up and will use these devices,” said CAIU Supervisor of Special Projects Mark Hennes.

By camp’s end, children and families were considerably more comfortable with their devices. Children will benefit through acquisition of “the building blocks for language,” said Speech and Language Pathologist Yvonne Shreffler. “Being able to ask questions, answer questions, communicate, let people know why I’m mad or why I’m happy. Those building blocks are what education and literacy are based on.”
 

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