Camp for Autistic Spectrum Campers?

Summer vacation for students on the autistic spectrum can be extremely challenging at best.  The lack of routine and structure during the summer increase general anxiety, while a lack of social and recreational programming can further isolate children already trailing their peers in social development.IMG_7998  Yet, this traditional school break can also present a unique opportunity for socially anxious and isolated students to immerse themselves in the socially rich culture of summer camp.  As an added bonus, these same students develop their independence as they learn how to transition away from home.

All too often, parents of autistic spectrum children are unaware of summer camps that strive to provide socially therapeutic programming to this unique population.  The general inclination is to feel that their children are not ready or able to make the break from home in order to experience what thousands of neurotypical children experience each summer in the camp setting.

Yet, there are camps out there that specialize in providing exactly what autistic spectrum campers need in order to maximize their summer camp experience.  Social skills, just as independence, cannot be learned in a vacuum, or at home. With the appropriate supports in place, there is no better setting for social skill development than a summer camp.

What are these supports and how should families gauge a camp’s ability to meet their child’s cognitive and socially developmental needs?  The criteria in the following list are critical factors to consider when families are seeking an appropriate camp for their autistic spectrum child.

Does the camp, their administration and cabin counselors:

  • Understand the developmental needs of children on the spectrum; in particular the non-verbal processing and other learning challenges experienced by this population of students?
  • Provide direct and formalized social skill instruction as well as ongoing support to reinforce their curriculum in order to help students internalize social strategies?
  • Emphasize social skill development as a critical goal for the camp community and use traditional activities as the vehicle for achieving social goals?
  • Recognize and acknowledge the debilitating impact that anxiety has on the performance level of autistic spectrum children?
  • Create a daily structure and routine to reduce anxiety and in doing so, maximize social engagement?
  • Provide age appropriate social opportunities for campers so that they can apply social skills in structured and supervised settings?
  • Maintain a continuous social dialogue between campers and their counselors designed to reinforce skills or redirect behavior in real time to provide immediate feedback?
  • Foster a community environment in which non-competitive and non-judgmental programming deemphasizes competition, reduces anxiety and celebrates unique interests and skills?

Age appropriate social skill development for students on the autistic spectrum is challenging at best.  There are too many factors related to processing, anxiety, rigidity and immaturity to take your chances with programs not specifically prepared to provide the necessary supports and structure to foster success and growth.  When researching campsIMG_6665 to determine their ability to meet the needs of your child, don’t hesitate to ask plenty of questions and be honest and upfront about your child’s strengths and weaknesses.  It is in the family’s, camp’s and, most importantly, camper’s best interests to find the right summer camp community to meet their individual needs.

There is no one camp out there that is able to meet the needs of every child.  The community of camps is as diverse as the children we serve!  Yet, there is a camp out there for every child!  When a family finds the right match, their children find a second home that can provide a lifetime of wonderful memories as well as a community that they can call their own!

The Unique Construction of Children

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Even the most flexible of us have no option but to bring our own singular experience and perceptions to the table as we conduct our affairs on a day to day basis. All too often as adults we have an expectation that our way is the best way, or even the only way when it comes to the process of how we approach the world.  This type of rigidity in our thinking can bring disastrous results to any form of social/educational interactions that involve children whose perceptual abilities are atypical.  Success for this portion of the population must be found using the “Unique Construction” design in which mentors learn to adapt to the strengths and learning styles of children as opposed to expecting the children to squeeze themselves into a rigid one size fits all model for learning.  Camp Northwood has been developing this model of interaction with children for nearly 40 years and found real success in applying this educational philosophy to our socially therapeutic environment.

For the most part, we live in a world where our interactions are with people that share a similar functional level enabling the successful navigation of our day to day affairs. This portion of the population has the cognitive and perceptual flexibility to adjust to a variety of social and educational experiences.  However, what we don’t often see, or acknowledge, is a huge population of people within our community that struggle to understand their community, let alone the wider world.  These are the members of our communities that display hugely varied levels of perceptual development; individuals that walk a unique path and require equally unique considerations when in social/educational settings.  Fortunately, the strategies necessary to produce successful results with this portion of our community can also produce a greater degree of success when working with the more neuro-typical population.  In order to help facilitate a greater degree of universal social/educational achievement, we need to accept a few basic developmental principals that lead us to acknowledge what I like to call the “Unique Construction” of individuals.

Just like a jigsaw puzzle, each person possesses a number of attributes that lead to our uniqueness. Some of the more important of these unique aspects are, but not limited to:

  1. The Environment in which we are raised;
  2. Experiences and Opportunities that add depth to our perspective of the world;
  3. Language Development that determines our ability to communicate both verbally and non-verbally;
  4. Perceptual Strengths that regulate how we process information and determine optimal Learning Style.
  5. Cognitive Development that greatly influences learning and social potential.

When training our Camp Northwood counselor staff to identify the potential of the children under their care, I have found the best analogy for understanding this concept of “unique construction” is to consider the thought that each of us is a jigsaw puzzle. Every child, and adult, is a separate and distinctive individual endowed with a variety of strengths, challenges and experiences that determine their unique construction.  Our task as camp counselors is to understand this uniqueness by identifying these distinctive qualities in our campers as well as ourselves.  The following questions can help begin the search for these individual puzzle pieces:

  1. What are the receptive/expressive language characteristics of the child?
  2. Is the child a concrete or abstract thinker?
  3. Can the child interpret non-verbal language cues?
  4. How does the child handle transitions and change within their micro and macro environments?
  5. Does the child have any motor functioning limitations?
  6. What are the normal activity and attention levels of the child?
  7. Is the child more of a visual, auditory or kinesthetic learner?
  8. How comfortable is the child in social settings?
  9. What type of experiences from outside of the camp environment may impact a child’s rate of social and activity based success?

As you can see, these questions offer a diverse look at a variety of abilities and just scratch the surface of questions that can lead to a better understanding of the child’s unique construction.

Our puzzle pieces impact each and every social interaction and educational opportunity. When staff embrace the concept that each child possesses a unique perspective and set of developmental skills, it becomes apparent that the approach we take to create success for each child must be individualized for that child to optimize their success.  One size does not fit all and in forcing all children into a standardized construct of learning, we are setting many up for mediocrity at best or more likely for our more vulnerable students, failure.  Can we expect a child with weak non-verbal processing and social anxiety to survive on a ball fields or in a dining hall with no structure or support?  Is the child with significant visual processing deficits going to experience success when required to read instructions to a project aloud in a group of their peers?  Is the extremely gifted abstract thinker going to reach their full potential if required to sit through repetitive activities focused on rote movements supporting concrete concepts?

Once trained to look for the puzzle pieces, mentoring children becomes a continual intellectual challenge. Each newly discovered piece of the puzzle creates additional opportunities for staff to modify the construct of each child’s social/educational experiences in order to maximize learning styles and strengths while minimizing areas of weakness.  This process also helps children to learn their unique construction and styles of learning so that they can advocate for themselves as they mature, helping teachers to better understand what they need to experience success.

There is nothing unique about “Unique Construction” theory. As educators, we experience the diverse construction of students on a daily basis.  It is how we use that information that makes us, as educators, unique!

For more information about Camp Northwood and/or our unique programming, please feel free to contact our office: 315 831-3621, northwoodprograms@hotmail.com, http://www.nwood.com

Emphasis on Social Development

DSC07017     The child/mentor relationship between campers and counselors in a quality summer camp is quite different than that of students and teachers in most school settings.  With the emphasis placed squarely in the social/ recreational realm, summer camp staff can provide a more social specific mentoring role to children far beyond that of teachers who are required to focus in much more detail on mandated academic curricula.  Both settings, school and camp, are extremely charged social environments that play pivotal roles in the social emotional development of children.  Both have opportunities to integrate social skill and character education into programmed curriculum.  However, the camp setting is one in which the intentional approach to instruction of these critical life skills is a priority whereas in more academic settings, state mandated curricula must take precedence.

Consider the following:  Social skills are much like athletic or artistic skills.  They are similar to the learned vocational skills that determine one’s success or lack thereof as we enter into our adult lives.  Those individuals that have achieved the greatest success in any area of expertise most likely share two common factors:

  1. A predisposition to a specific skill or attribute
  2. Opportunity and desire to practice their craft.

Ask any successful physician, welder, athlete, writer, lawyer, teacher, electrician, banker etc… did their success just happen or did they have to learn a set of skills and then dedicate a significant amount of time to honing their application of those skills?  Furthermore, do they need to continually practice their skills in order to maintain their level of competence?  Of course, their answers will be a resounding YES!

Perhaps a third, and typically neglected during professional development, attribute for success beyond the aforementioned two would be:

3.   Ability to function in a social community.

This is where, unless we take great care and actively seek opportunities for growth, we let our children down.  A well-practiced and predisposed superstar scientist, secretary, journalist or any other vocationally gifted person that is not able to understand the social dynamic of the workplace and is unable to relate to others will most likely have great difficulty succeeding in life.  Functioning in a social community (meaning any time two or more people are together for any reason) requires a set of social skills that must be developed and practiced.  There are some children that have a natural ability to function in a social environment.  There are some that can learn these skills with little guidance and minimal practice.  However, the overwhelming majority of children can greatly benefit from specific social skill instruction and enhanced/supportive environments in which these skills can be practiced.

Social skills must be taught, reinforced and practiced before they are internalized and performed successfully.  The environment in which this is done most efficiently is a social one.  These skills cannot be learned effectively in a vacuum from a purely theoretical perspective.  Can one learn to fly a plane by simply reading a manual or in a discussion group?  There are few environments better suited to teach social skills than residential summer camps!

Camp counselors play a pivotal role in the process of acquiring age appropriate social skills.  As campers experience the vast range of activities and social scenarios throughout the course of their day, counselors are able to continue a constant social dialogue.  This constant process of providing feedback to campers allows staff to highlight the successful use of social strategies as well as redirect campers if their choices/actions are not appropriate.  Critical to this process is the act of identifying successful strategies.  All too often, we as adults focus solely on correction of negative behavior.   This clearly is not as fun for either children or adults and tends to lead children to think of the learning process as more punitive as opposed to a discovery process.

In a summer camp environment, every aspect of the daily routine can be treated as a vehicle for addressing social development.  Furthermore, the potential for exposure to multiple social skill sets is endless.  Consider the fact that the patterns and unwritten rules for socialization vary depending on many factors.  Size of group, age of participants, coed vs single sex, social activity etc… are just a few of the factors that determine appropriate conduct in social settings.  When teaching social skills, this micro-specializing must be taken into consideration and opportunities to practice these various skill sets must be frequent.  In a camp setting, with a staff trained to promote social skill development, quiet time in cabins, walking back and forth to activities and meals provide an opportunity for campers of a similar age to reinforce social skills in small group single sex or coed settings.  Sporting activities, talent shows, free swims and dances create opportunities for coed groups campers, of all ages to socially interact and hone their social skills in large group setting.  When the activities of camp are viewed as opportunities to reinforce social skills, and the actual goal is providing a quality social experience first and exposure to the specific activity second, staff are able to modify each experience to maximize the social potential of the activity.  Imagine a physics teacher regularly giving up on lesson plans so that the class can have impromptu discussions related to strategies for dealing with various social scenarios!

The healthy development of our children requires intentional consideration to many factors.  Academics, independence, socialization and vocational training are just a few topics that must be addressed to give our children the best foundation on which they can build a meaningful life.  Through academic and vocational training/exploration, schools aid students in finding their predispositions to specific skills and foster a desire to excel in these areas of interest.  Unfortunately, there is no “Mall of Life” where one stop shopping can provide quality instruction in each critical area and phase of development.  Furthermore, there is no doubt that the social aspect of a child’s development is the catalyst that can foster greater degrees of success in each of these developmental factors and I would encourage each and every parent, mentor and educator to consider that perhaps camps can play a meaningful role in this one specific area.  Recognizing our strengths and weaknesses, what we can and cannot do is critical to any organization or industry.  In the realm of social development, camps can make a difference!

The Lost Art of Play

I do not remember a day from my childhood during which I was not running around outdoors.  Jumping on my bike and riding a few miles to a friend’s house or school, exploring the ravines and fields of our community, building forts, skiing, camping, playing games of basketball, street hockey, baseball and capture the flag were only a fraction of the occupiers of our time.  Furthermore, from about 12 years on, we did not need an adult to take responsibility for scheduling our social/recreational lives.  We were spontaneous and the phrase “what do you want to do” was always on the tip of our tongues.  Boredom was inconceivable for any more than 10 minutes as two or more children would invariably find something interesting to do.  Springing from this spontaneous form of play came a sense of social confidence, a comfort with the verbal and non-verbal language of socialization and problem solving skills as we dealt with the choice to be made between boredom and adventure.

Two factors enable children to experience a similar richness of activity in the social community of childhood:  A Sense of Comfort with Peers and Opportunity.  The lack of either factor would greatly put the child at a disadvantage and lead to a physical and social stagnation that many children are experiencing in today’s world.

The sense of comfort with peers comes from a variety of factors.  Some of these factors are developmental while some are clearly environmental.  A child’s expressive and receptive language development (verbal and non-verbal- often an indicator of cognitive development) are perhaps the most critical of skills that contribute to a sense of social comfort.  It is language that binds us to each other and allows for common experiences to be shared and a sense of belonging to spring forth.  The language of socialization can be expressed through words or an acknowledgement of presence.  A non-verbal smile, a hand shake or high-five are often a far more meaningful expression of language than a conversation or declarative sentence.

Beyond language, a child’s social history, maturity and personal interests shaped from life experiences are also critical to a sense of social comfort.  Many of the most important life lessons of childhood having to do with the development of social skills and social comfort are learned through the often misunderstood and frequently discounted act of “play”.  When two or more children are together “hanging out” or participating in some type of organized or unstructured activity, they are honing a series of skills that promote their social development.  Interpretation of social environments, non-verbal social cues, persuasive expressive language and active listening skills are just a few of these key elements.  It is important to note that none of these skills can be learned as naturally or efficiently in a vacuum, sitting in front of a computer or a TV.

Unfortunately, much of our society has “evolved” to the point where parents can no longer allow their children to spend countless hours exploring their neighborhood roaming two to three miles from home unsupervised in search of adventure- imagine the opportunities to develop independence that are lost to youth today!  Safety concerns, rightfully so, prohibit this type of unstructured activity and have put a crimp in the style of children for decades.  To compensate for these lost opportunities, we have over structured our children’s free time with everything but freedom.  Lessons, clubs, practices, concerts, etc… provide wonderful enriching experiences and are clearly beneficial to a child’s development, but they do not offer a child a chance to say “what do you want to do” and then go through the creative problem solving steps of making independent and group decisions.  Children rarely have a chance to figure out what to do when there is nothing to do!  This might seem trite, but ask yourself, what happens to children as they grow up and there is no one in their life to answer the question?  The skill of social decision making is not spontaneously mastered and must be practiced for a child/ young adult to be able to become socially independent.

Where can families look to try and recreate a similar type of free play experience for their children?  Where can parents find an environment that provides a comforting level of opportunity and safety for their children while at the same time provides a chance to immerse themselves in a culture that places an emphasis on the art of play?  CAMP=OPPORTUNITY

In many residential camp settings, children are encouraged to make decisions regarding activities in which they would like to participate.  Camps also offer less structured times during the day during which campers are able to “figure out” what to do with their friends.  In their cabin groups, children are immersed in numerous group decision making events throughout the day and are honing their social skills continually.  Whether it is at activities, in the cabin, meal times or simply walking back and forth to activities, a constant social verbal and non-verbal dialogue is taking place and a feeling of social comfort develops naturally with an appropriate level of support and skills reinforcement from staff.  It doesn’t take long for a sense of community to develop and it becomes quite clear that children greatly appreciate and crave a sense of belonging to a social community.

As families seek programs that can provide this Art of Play experience, it is important to keep in mind that not every camp is right for every child.  Families have to seek camp communities that are best suited to meet their children’s unique qualities, strengths and weaknesses.  The chemistry of the camp community is perhaps the most critical indicator for the potential of a successful summer experience.  Due diligence is critical and there are a number of steps to be taken that will help in a family’s search for the best camp for each individual camper.  Stay tuned….