Eden Guizar loves music, but can’t sing the lyrics of her favorite songs. The 11 year-old from State College returned for her second year at “I Can Talk” camp at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Bethel Park. This time, her family brought her two siblings, allowing her 9-year-old brother Caden to help her through the camp, as she learns how to better communicate with a nonverbal disability.
“These kids have the same thoughts we do and more,” speech pathologist Evelyn Meinert said. “But they can’t get it out. It’s the most frustrating thing for a child to want to communicate or see others doing the same and not be able to.”
Meinert, with the AAC Institute, helped organize the fourth annual Augmentative and Alternative Communication camp and clinic that’s in its second year at a location in the South Hills.
“We’re going to go over to the mall as well, so we can get kids engaged on how to shop and engage with retailers,” Meinert said.
“And safety lessons are here, too. We have pharmacists from Target asking kids to identify what’s candy and what is medicine. And there are security guards from South Hills Village giving a lesson on what to do in large crowds if a child gets separated.”
The main mission of the four-day camp held last week is to improve the communication skills of nonverbal and autistic children as they grow up with technology.
“Eden, our daughter, had a device when she was 5 or 6 that had just four buttons on it … last year she had an iPad, and she’s getting a new dedicated device this year,” Jon Guizar said.
“We want her to have a voice … and to be around parents experiencing the same thing – that’s why we came back,” Leah Guizar said.
Parents came from Texas, Colorado and Washington state, with most saying they don’t have such hands-on programs at home that allow their kids to improve interaction with their peers and learning. Twenty children and their families attended the camp.
The children are helped along by mentors who know the challenges they face growing up.
Chris Ryder, 45, is a mentor from Wilmerding who has cerebral palsy and communicates with a tablet computer that tracks her eye movements, allowing her to type and translate the text to a digital voice.
“I’ve used this model for a year now,” Ryder said through the computer.
“I have a lot of fun with the campers. It was tough with this technology at first, but that’s the point – to get the hang of it,” Ryder said.
Executive director of the AAC Institute Katya Miller said the kids and mentors are inspiring in how they tackle each challenge with enthusiasm.
“They are highly courageous, motivated individuals that have a lot to show us about the human spirit,” she said.