Going to camp. For most children it is a summertime staple, a rite of passage, a chance to experience a special camaraderie with peers. But for children with high functioning autism or Asperger syndrome, who struggle with social and communication skills, attending summer camp has often not been an option, until now. Camp SSTAR (Social Skills, Technology, Asperger and Recreation), an initiative of the Heartspring CARE Program, provided 55 children with autism a chance to do just that.
During the five day camp, July 21-25, campers ages three to 21 participated in a variety of social skills and team building sessions, recreation and leisure activities, arts and crafts projects, and some played important roles in creating a newscast, website and camp yearbook. Most importantly, Camp SSTAR gave children the opportunity to be leaders and explore their passions without the fear of being judged.
Connie Coulter, director of CARE and autism outreach at Heartspring, has over 20 years of experience working with children with autism. Seeing Camp SSTAR become a reality was important to her. “Very simply, Camp SSTAR provided children an opportunity to be around kids that were very similar to them. This was the first time that many of them were able to connect with other children who faced the same challenges in their everyday lives,” she said.
As Coulter and her staff started to plan Camp SSTAR, they looked at the characteristics of children with autism and tried to find activities encompassing their common interests, and structured the camp to incorporate social skills into each activity.
Centered on a journalism theme, campers were placed into groups based on their age and interests: Reporters, Editors, Producers and Apprentices. For the Apprentice group, each camper was given a role in the On-Air Talent Team, Production Crew, Web Team or Yearbook Team. Each Apprentice camper creatively collaborated with each other and other campers to produce a fully functional website, newscast and yearbook for all campers to enjoy.
“What I really wanted to do was give all of these kids the same opportunity as every other child. We just tailored the experience to meet their needs,” said Coulter.
Children diagnosed with Asperger syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorder (PDD) often have difficulty making friends. Though most of these children are very intelligent, they may not recognize social cues, can appear egocentric and can be easily annoyed. By offering them a safe place with counselors who understand the autism spectrum, campers were able to problem solve, process and foster friendships, and learn how to better communicate. “The campers were set up to succeed and flourish,” said Lindsay Randle, speech-language pathologist and camp counselor.
For the younger campers much of the camp focused on understanding emotions; how to recognize emotions other people are showing and how to express them productively and positively. Through arts and crafts and social skills activities, campers created emotional statues to help express their feelings as well as participated in games like the emotion ball toss, where they had to match emotions drawn on the ball with the appropriate bucket, and also act out that emotion.
Throughout the camp, children were able to break down personal barriers and learn how to interact with other children.
“The camp helped me work out how not to get so angry. I also learned that I need to be patient with people that are different and think different than me. I made tons of friends at camp and I really hope that I see them next year at camp,” said ten-year-old Isaac.
Seven-year-old Connor, surrounded by new friends, gave a memorable speech to his group about his experience. “Camp SSTAR was built to help us train and to try to control our Aspergers when it gets too big. And I’m sure we will grow up to be successful in our lives. So this is a good learning experience to grow up with.”
Older campers were able to hone in on their talents as reporters, newscasters, website developers, photographers, sound and light technicians and camera crew. It wasn’t long before teamwork became the norm and feelings of isolation were extinct.
“I really loved being with other kids who make me feel good and like me,” said Carson, a member of the On-Air Talent Team.
With limited resources, parents of children with autism struggle to find activities and groups that understand and embrace their children. Moms and dads across the state were appreciative of the Camp SSTAR experience.
“Connor loved every minute. He was ready to go and excited each day. That’s a success for us,” said his mom, Marcy. “(For Conner to have) a feeling of belonging – being ‘one of the gang’ was so wonderful!”
At the end of the week, parents were invited to an awards assembly where each camper received a certificate from their counselors. To kick things off parents and campers watched a video showcasing photographs that depicted some of activities from the week and an excerpt of the newscast that was produced by campers. For some parents, the experience was overwhelming.
“I was sitting at the awards assembly at the end of the week and had tears running down my face. For once I was in a place where my son’s unusual behavior was no longer unusual,” said Isaac’s dad, Ed. “He acted just like everyone else and his behavior was not considered strange. He FINALLY fit in. He still talks about Camp SSTAR and can’t wait to attend next year. It was like this camp was a gift from above for my son. I will never be able to express what the camp has meant to my son and me. We are very thankful for all the support and hard work that went into the camp.”
In one week 55 children with autism spectrum disorders were able to shine. All they needed was a forum in which they felt they belonged.