“Because they get me”: A camp for children with autism

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by Melodie Davis

Curtis Custer, a student at John C. Myers Elementary School, explores the wonders of a summer dandelion. Photo by Brian Alger

While a week at camp swimming and fishing may be common pastimes on the summer schedule of many kids and families, often children with autism don’t get those opportunities. That is changing for a small group of children gearing up to participate in the first two-week day camp being organized by concerned teachers, therapists and parents in the Broadway, Va. area.

Approximately one in 68 children has some form of autism, and one in 42 are boys. Sending a child with autism to a regular camp can create even more stress and anxiety for the child, and they act out even more. Scott Showalter, teacher of a class for children with autism at John C. Myers Elementary School (JCMES) and three others spoke at the Broadway Lions Club recently sharing facts, stories and enthusiasm for this specialized field of education.

If a child has autism, it doesn’t mean they are slow or incapable; they can be very high functioning.

Autism of course is a spectrum of symptoms and behaviors: from not talking at all to talking all the time; restricted interests, repetitive patterns of behavior, delays in developmental milestones, or excelling in specific activities like art, math or memorization; persistent deficits in social communication, difficulties with dressing, reading and activities like going to church; some have extremely limited diets (such as refusing to eat anything other than French fries or breakfast cereal).  Raising a child with autism can be fraught with stress, anxiety, and frustration—not easy for child, parents, siblings, extended family and friends.

Macen Fulk reads to children at JCMES which is a part of the “peer mentoring” that children enjoy. Photos by Brian Alger and Scott Showalter

Still, say parents and teachers of children with any of these issues, the children have so much to offer the world. Parents and teachers learn to capitalize on the child’s strengths. “If a child has autism, it doesn’t mean they are slow or incapable; they can be very high functioning,” says one of the teachers at JCMES, and parent of a child with autism. She said kids with autism face many challenges, the first of which is often getting an accurate diagnosis. Families seeing developmental delays in their children also face delays as they seek doctors and wait for appointments. When they get old enough to go to school, they face additional difficulties. There really is no cure, except for therapies, and time.

The Broadway camp is called Camp Jigsaw and will be headquartered at JCMES. Holly Blais, who teaches pre-K (4-year-olds), was previously employed at a camp in Pennsylvania for children with autism, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and a variety of other disabilities with an emphasis on improving social skills. She notes children with autism are often more comfortable with others like themselves. She received an email about a child who absolutely loved the Pennsylvania camp and insisted he needed to go again the following year. His mother asked why, what was so special? “Because they get me,” her son responded.

Bentley Delawder enjoys a puppet as part of the learning curriculum in his classroom. Photo by Brian Alger

The name, Camp Jigsaw, refers to the logo often used by autism groups, and points to the fact autism is like a puzzle piece that doesn’t fit—children may feel they don’t fit, researchers don’t know what causes it, how to prevent it, and sometimes how to treat it. But involved parents, teachers, professionals—and the children—are learning. The planners have worked to make the camp available free of charge because families often have many extra expenses and such camps are often unaffordable for families with average budgets.

This year it will be available for approximately 15-20 children meeting specific criteria related to autism. Showalter, who teaches six students in JCMES’ autism program says they are planning at least three field trips: to the Broadway pool, a rafting trip, and trout fishing at Fulks Run; there will be opportunity for pony rides, and a visit by an ice cream truck. They will be engaged with STEM-type projects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), sensory play, punching bags, art therapy, a Kung Fu instructor, yoga, therapy dogs, cooking, music therapy, movies, ball games and more.

Showalter enjoys helping children learn the skills to communicate better. Their social skills also improve in such an environment. “It is treatable—many children are very gifted,” Showalter says. “They make progress.”

Jill Rice, speech pathologist at the school, noted the kids are motivated to cooperate by receiving rewards for good behavior. “If you think treats and rewards are not healthy,” she points out, “we all get up and go to work for the reward of a paycheck.” She says speech therapy is not just learning how to say or pronounce words, but overall improving communication skills that go a long way in helping interactions with others.

Mr. Showalter gets a heartfelt hug from Curtis Custer. Photos by Brian Alger and Scott Showalter

Rice notes one proven best practice is that children learn best from each other, so in Showalter’s classroom, for instance, there are regular peer mentors (other children) who can model positive behavior and communication.

Showalter shared an example of his students learning how to write thank you notes. For one project at school, they earned a trip to a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant offering food, games and prizes. Afterwards, in writing his thank you note, one boy wrote, “Mr. Showalter, thank you for taking us to Chuck E. Cheese, and I’m just writing the rest of this sentence to fill up the card.”

Showalter adored his card, the boy’s honesty, and loves the kids. “They come out with one-liners that are to die for,” he said, adding, “They bring so much joy to our lives.”

The camp at Broadway will run July 9-20 from 8:30-11:30 in the morning—most children do better in their learning and behavior in the mornings.

An outdoor garden offers motor development and exercise beside science learning for Bentley Delawder. Photos by Brian Alger and Scott Showalter

The planners have been pleased with response from the community by receiving generous donations from organizations such as the Shenandoah Valley Autism Partnership and Broadway civic clubs including Lions, Rotary, and Ruritans. Nearby Sunset United Methodist Church organized a fundraiser and others have offered gifts of supplies and funds. The organizers hope to inspire this kind of camp for children of other schools in the Shenandoah Valley.

To donate money, supplies or snacks for the camp, contact Scott Showalter at 540-810-1551 or scottshowalter@rockingham.k12.va.us.

Melodie Davis, editor of Valley Living, is the mother of three adult daughters, and lives with her husband near Harrisonburg, Va. She also blogs at www.FindingHarmonyBlog.com.

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