News From Terre Haute, Indiana

June 28, 2013

Autistic kids get their points across

Dianne Frances D. Powell
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — “The silence of speechlessness is never golden. We all need to communicate and connect with each other. … It is a basic human need, a basic human right. And much more than this, it is a basic human power."

–– Bob Williams, a disability

 awareness advocate

Williams’ words especially ring true for Hannah Waggoner, who, like 13 other children attending Camp Bruce Thursday at the newly renamed Norma and William Grosjean Clinic at University Hall, has severe verbal communication problems.

These children have special needs, most of them suffering from Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Although nonverbal, Hannah showed no hint of difficulty understanding and answering questions using her communication device while doing arts and crafts.

“What did you do yesterday?” camp director April Newton asked Hannah.

The girl, who has been attending the camp for three years, then pushed letters and figures on her communication device, which looks like a tablet. Her answer can be read on the screen of the device and be heard from the speaker saying, “I went to Indianapolis.”

“How old are you?” a reporter asked.

She held up her two index fingers together to say that she is 11 years old.

Hannah signs, gestures and uses facial expressions and her device to communicate with people around her.

As do other children at the camp.

Camp Bruce, a two-week summer camp, with a pre-camp during the first week, is designed to assist these children to communicate using Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) strategies.

According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, AAC is an umbrella term for communication methods that supplement or replace speech or writing for those unable to produce spoken and/or written language. These methods include gestures, picture boards and electronic devices.

To facilitate this, 20 speech language pathology graduate students at Indiana State University — Newton’s students — planned activities tailored to participants’ needs. For four days a week, the children go to different rooms for activities such as movement and music, literacy, and arts and crafts.

An important part of the children’s two-hour sessions at camp is snacks and social.

“A lot of these kids haven’t had the opportunity to be involved because they have limited communication. This gives them an opportunity to participate,” Newton said of the campers, whose ages range from four to 14.

But learning acquired from Camp Bruce is a two-way street.

“The children are able to use the communication that they’re working on. The graduate students are able to practice their skills as a facilitator and as a communication partner with the kids,” said Newton, who has been working with the camp since its inception three years ago.

This year, the camp is funded through the Larry Archer Memorial Fund for Autism Awareness and Understanding through a Wabash Valley Community Foundation grant that Arc of Vigo County received. Arc, which advocates for persons with developmental disability, partnered with Newton and the graduate clinicians to facilitate the camp.

“It provides an opportunity for the graduate students to learn about helping people with severe communication disabilities, a lot of them with autism, that really have a lot to say but have no way of saying it,” Newton added.

The theme of the camp, “We’ve got something to say,” is imprinted on Newton’s shirt as a constant reminder of what the work is all about.

Newton’s work started in 2010 with a 44-year-old man named Bruce suffering from ASD. After working with him over the summer, he made so much progress that he was able to order his food from a restaurant and answer basic questions using a communication device. Before that, he had not spoken in 30 years, Newton said. The camp was named in his honor.

“We decided to do something in his honor. He taught me a lot,” Newton said.

Another person who is learning a lot is Heather Hancock, who was assisting Hannah with arts and crafts on Thursday.

“It’s been such a good learning experience,” Hancock said.

But it is mainly about the kids, who have so much to say.

Barbara Archer, who started the Larry Archer Memorial Fund for Autism Awareness four years ago, visited the camp Thursday to see the work firsthand. She expressed passion for the plight of the children.

“They [the children] can contribute so much to society if people allow them to do it,” Archer said.

She also said that lawmakers do not understand that such children require long-term therapy.

“The problem with a child with autism is that they will revert back if this [therapy] is not continued,” she said.

But Archer was pleased with the work being done at Camp Bruce and considers it to be important.

“They [the children] have so much to offer. We need to give them the chance to come out and be what they are,” Archer said.  

Tribune-Star Reporter Dianne Frances D. Powell can be reached at 812-231-4299 or