Finding Their Voices

Camp Program Helps Kids Who Use Computers To Communicate

 Every August, a caravan pulls up at Camp Chatterbox in New Jersey and when the car doors open, campers pile out to begin a fun-packed week of activities. Some are Chatterbox veterans, others are tentative newcomers, but all of them are excited to be there for an experience that puts them on a level playing field in more ways than one. The overnight program is sponsored by Children’s Specialized Hospital in Mountainside, a member of Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, for kids who either cannot speak or are severely speech impaired. It is based at the 15-acre Camp Oakhurst in the Garden State’s Monmouth County, a fully wheelchair-accessible facility about 50 miles from Newark Liberty International Airport that offers campers a heated swimming pool, ball field, nature trails, gym, computer lab, media arts room and, of course that summer camp staple, an arts and crafts area. Beyond the sports and other camp specifics, however, it provides them with a unique opportunity to meet and socialize with other children who face the same daily trials and tribulations that they do in a safe and supportive environment.

Using Technology to Talk to Others

Children attending Camp Chatterbox may have been born with or developed cerebral palsy, fallen ill with an infection, or suffered a stroke or other traumatic brain injury that causes childhood apraxia of speech (CAS), a condition that occurs when the brain is unable to direct the necessary movements for speaking. In some cases, CAS is symptomatic of a metabolic or genetic disorder. Children with CAS typically have limited vocabulary and/or difficulty saying words in the correct order.

Whatever the cause, children coping with the condition’s inherent communication challenges can benefit from the use of an Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) apparatus, which synthesizes voice for speech. Examples of AAC technologies include iPads with AAC apps, Eye-Gaze devices and other computerized equipment that essentially allows a user to translate their thoughts into words and sentences. At Camp Chatterbox, all the campers use an AAC system and learn to engage with other AAC users while employing the technology across a range of age and socially appropriate fun and functional activities.

As Camp Chatterbox’s director, Joan Bruno, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, explained, “You can ask them about anything in the world and they have the ability to communicate [with an AAC device].”

Learning Communication Strategies

When Camp Chatterbox campers, who range in age from five to 22, are not using their AAC device to enjoy the usual camp activities, they are learning how to optimize the AAC technology for improved daily living through specific language-based activities. During approximately five hours each day of therapeutic time, they focus on mastering core vocabularies, composing sentences, initiating communications and enhancing their skills in interacting with both peers and adults. For these activities, they are grouped according to age and abilities.

One group, for instance, involves kids who are easily able to take part in play activities and use their AAC device to answer questions with either one or two symbols. Another works with intermediate AAC users who can form more expansive messages, and still another addresses children who possess more complex abilities with syntax and need to tackle pragmatic language goals. “We want everyone to achieve their potential,” Bruno stressed. “For some children, their potential is to go to college, and for some children it might be to be more functional in the community.”

All campers must be able to participate at Camp Chatterbox without one-to-one behavioral support. They are supervised by counselors (the camper-to-counselor ratio is 2:1), and live in cabins with other campers of the same sex and age range. Camp Chatterbox employs a nurse who is available around the clock to administer medications and tend to routine health issues; medically fragile campers must provide their own 24-hour nursing staff.

Spending Time with Other Campers and Families

What distinguishes Camp Chatterbox are its two unique programs that cater to campers based on their age, as well as its attention to the concerns and needs of their families. The Camp Chatterbox Family Program, designed for children five to 14, invites parents and siblings seven years and older along for the fun-filled camp experience (campers 10 years and older can attend without a family member). Families sleep in the same cabins as their camper, and often room with other families to increase opportunities for spontaneous peer interaction. They also can take advantage of all Camp Chatterbox has to offer, swimming, taking nature hikes and more, along with their camper.

With regard to AAC technology, the program offers a wide scope of training sessions and lectures for parents that center on such topics as language development and communication, AAC strategies, integration of AAC in the classroom and vendor information. Parents benefit as well from special networking events with other parents of AAC campers, like a weekly “Parent Night Out” held at a nearby restaurant, at which they can share stories and empathize with one another. One parent remarked that “the networking and getting ideas from other parents” was particularly helpful to her in navigating the AAC world with her child.


Leading the Way and Having Fun

For teens 15 to 19 and young adults 20 to 22, the Camp Chatterbox Independence and Self-Advocacy Program provides activities to promote just what its title describes. When they are not at the pool, communing with nature, playing sports, being creative with arts and crafts, or participating in other typical camp activities, campers receive daily instruction and encouragement in using their AAC devices to build critical-thinking and problem-solving abilities, accept responsibility for their own behavior and actions, direct their care, advocate for their needs, and communicate with others, especially people who are unfamiliar with AAC technology. In addition, they take a lead role in coordinating evening activities such as campfires and dances for campers and families enrolled in Camp Chatterbox’ Family Program as well as staff members. This important job not only helps promote their independence and advocacy skills, it also increases peer interaction among all the campers.

At the outset of each camp season, a motivating theme provides a framework for all therapeutic and recreational activities. And at the end of the program, an All-Camp Talent Show where “everyone has the opportunity to be a star”—campers, parents and siblings alike—caps a memorable, fun and educational week. “Singing songs is incredibly motivating [for campers, as is] seeing their parents absolutely act like fools,” said Bruno with a chuckle. “Dads are put in dresses and in a skirt, so when someone sees their dad come out in a dress, I mean it’s quite hilarious!”

Creating and Appreciating Camp Chatterbox

Bruno founded Camp Chatterbox in 1991. It is very much a successful and satisfying part of her long career spanning 30 years in the field of AAC. Bruno also maintains a private practice and has presented internationally on both AAC assessment and AAC intervention. Additionally, she is the author of the Gateway© App for the TouchChat and DynaVox AAC devices as well as the Test for Aided-Communication Symbol Performance—the latter “helps assess symbolic skills” and “uses results to design communication boards and establish appropriate AAC intervention goals and strategies targeting symbolic and syntactic development.”

She is joined at Camp Chatterbox by a staff comprising speech-language pathologists certified by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, special-education teachers, graduate students, interns, volunteers and camp counselors. All staff members attend mandatory training sessions before campers arrive to ensure an enjoyable and effective camp experience for all participants.

Camp Chatterbox is a recipient of the Eleanor P. Eells Award for Program Excellence from the American Camp Association and the 1993 Program of the Year Award from the New Jersey Speech and Hearing Association. While she appreciates the recognitions, Bruno really is grateful for her campers and their families. She gets inspired when she sees how much they accomplish while at Camp Chatterbox and is so pleased to be able to send them home with new tools and lessons learned that improve their communication. And she simply enjoys watching them interact with one another and leave with new pals. As she said, Camp Chatterbox “gives them a chance to see other kids with similar disabilities. It’s motivating for them and it allows them to make friends.” One mom whose 11-year-old son suffers from CAS and autism and uses an AAC device perhaps summed it up best when she said, “When he’s here, he feels like everybody else.” •

All campers must complete an application for Camp Chatterbox. Acceptance is based on there being a vacancy in a therapy group with campers of similar age and abilities. Families are invited to submit their applications beginning January 1 for the upcoming summer’s camp program. Returning families can apply using the online registration procedure. New families are asked to mail their application and support materials to Camp Chatterbox, 200 Portland Road, A-20, Highlands, New Jersey 07732. Camp fees are divided into two components: a therapy fee and a camp fee. The therapy fee covers activities that promote AAC device use. The camp fee includes room and meals, bedding, use of the camp’s facilities and personal care staff for independent campers. Several camper sponsorships are available to those in financial need. Application forms and detailed information about camp fees are available on the camp website at

 For further information, email or or call (908) 301-5451.


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