Children On The Autistic Spectrum

By Sylvia van Meerten

“How’s Max holding up?” I ask a camp director who recently agreed to host this camper with autism.

“Um,” she says before pausing. “He did pretty well after the first day. But it’s still not going great with the boys in his cabin.”

“Uh oh. What’s up?” I thought of 10-year-old Max’s wild first day at camp—dashing off to do some unauthorized wading in the lake and an impromptu redecorating of his cabin with paint from the craft shop.

“Well, he settled down and everything. It’s mostly that he doesn’t do what the other boys are doing. He’s always doing his own thing,” the director informs me. “We try to get him involved, and, of course, put-downs aren’t allowed, but … he’s simply not fitting in too well.”

Campers On The Autistic Spectrum
In the last couple of decades, autism—a psychological diagnosis first clearly defined by Leo Kanner in 1943—has become more prevalent. Like most diagnoses, its severity varies along a continuum, with Asperger’s Syndrome on the less-severe end and severely autistic, nonverbal children on the more-severe end.

Many summer camps now routinely host a camper or two on the autistic spectrum. Whether families disclose a diagnosis or not, it usually becomes apparent that certain campers need extra support, especially from a social standpoint.

Children with autism behave differently because they think differently. The defining characteristic is limited perception of other people’s thoughts, behaviors, and emotions. Without this so-called “theory of mind,” people on the autistic spectrum cannot read social cues with as much facility as a typically developing person.

Misunderstanding—or simply not seeing—others’ points of view can cause some odd behaviors. Understanding, accommodating, and responding to these differences in a supportive way are keys to promoting the success of anyone at camp on the autistic spectrum.

What To Look For
Some common behaviors for campers with autism include:

• Difficulty transitioning between activities or spaces. Example: A camper might take longer than everyone else, become upset with a transition, or might be in a big hurry to get to something new.

• Talking too much or not talking at all. Example: One camper might silently look at an object when a counselor addresses him, while another might discuss her favorite topic at lightning speed, without pausing.

• Not hearing or not listening to counselor directions. Example: A camper might run ahead to a different activity area and not respond to a prompt to “stay with the group.”

• Not responding predictably (or at all) to others’ attempts at conversation. Example: In an ice-breaker where campers say their name and a favorite sport, a camper on the spectrum might speak briefly about World War II but forget to say his name.

• Getting into materials that are not intended for camper use. Example: A camper might grab art supplies from an off-limits shelf, or might enter the maintenance shed while walking by.

• Using materials or equipment inappropriately. Example: A camper might paint a bench or a table instead of a birdhouse, the project under consideration.

• Being rude to staff or other campers. Example: A camper might comment that singing camp songs “is stupid,” or continually interrupt other children.

• Struggling to bond with other campers. Example: A camper might take a joke too far, or become offended by a comment that was not intended to be mean.

• Not participating in the same activity as other children, or not participating in the same way. Example: A camper might want to throw a dodge ball at counselor referees, instead of at the opposing team.

Fortunately, most of these behaviors are not emergencies. Unfortunately, most camp staff will feel as if these situations are emergencies because it is stressful to feel “out of control” in one’s work with a camper who is supposed to be in the staff’s care.

One way to address this feeling is to do a short “safety check.” If a camper is acting in an unusual way, staff members should ask themselves, “Is this dangerous or just weird?” If the behavior is simply odd, but not dangerous, the members should take a deep breath and focus on having a positive interaction with that camper.

Most camps have procedures for truly dangerous behavior, and counselors are trained to respond according to policy. Most odd behavior is not a true emergency, and most true emergencies already have protocols.

Autism, Anxiety, And Visual Learning
In a recent series of interviews, I asked adults with autism about anxiety (commonly associated with autism). Each of them reported feeling highly anxious more than once an hour, every day. New places, unclear expectations, and crowds were cited as high-anxiety situations.

Summer camp, by its nature, can produce anxiety for many campers. The level of anxiety increases for new campers, and even more for new campers on the autistic spectrum. Addressing the anxiety directly, by clarifying expectations and ordering the events, can be helpful.

Our staff members usually clarify the expectations at camp, but we do not always communicate in a way that is well-suited to youngsters with autism. The following factors make it difficult for people on the autistic spectrum to understand the expectations at camp:

• Anxiety—Rarely is someone a good listener when anxious. A person hears and understands better when calm.

• Auditory processing is difficult—Long verbal statements can be difficult for campers to follow. Visual information is often easier to process.

• Difficulty interpreting the tone of voice or facial expressions—Children with autism often overlook social nuance in voice, tone, or face.

For example, if one speaks in a frustrated tone but doesn’t indicate a specific behavior to stop, a young person with autism might completely miss the implied hint to halt the behavior.

Directly stating, “Please put your hands in your lap,” is better than the somewhat vague “Keep your hands to yourself,” and much better than the frustrated admonition, “Some people are not focusing.”

The trifecta of being anxious, having verbal-language challenges, and missing social cues makes it extremely likely that campers with autism will behave oddly. Luckily, there are some easy and affordable ways to set these young people up for success.

Show campers what will happen during the day.
• Write out a detailed schedule for the week, and post it in the cabin and in the dining hall.

• Make a small daily “pocket schedule” that a camper can bring with him or her.

• Spend some quiet, one-to-one time with a camper with autism on the first day to go over his or her schedule.

• Refer to the schedule frequently (especially a few minutes before transitions occur), and point to it while speaking.

Set clear and blunt behavior expectations.
• Write the rules (short and positively phrased), and post them in a variety of settings. The cabin rules are usually written at the end of the first day, but that might be too long to wait for a camper with autism.

• Refer to the rules (while pointing at them) at new activity venues.

• Write down social expectations directly in a note, and hand it to an autistic camper (e.g., “Always ask a staff member if you want to go somewhere different. Running off alone is not allowed, but I can take you where you want to go.”)

• State expectations without asking. “In 2 minutes, it will be time to put your shoes on” instead of “Do you want to get ready to go?”

• Narrate or “scaffold” social interactions for campers with poor social skills. Say, “Chris didn’t hear you because you weren’t looking at him.” Or, “Everyone likes a chance to talk. If you listen to Scott for a while, he might want to listen to you again.”

Communicate visually.
• Write out rules, schedules, and camp-specific procedures. Post them in appropriate settings. If the staff knows in advance that a camper has autism, schedules can be emailed to his or her parents, and they can help prepare the child.

• Demonstrate activities, games, and projects with gestures, drawings, and demonstrations while explaining them verbally.

• Allow campers to watch first before they jump into an activity. Narrate the behavior of other children you are observing.

• Use notes and drawings to process incidents after the fact, instead of merely talking.

• Write an explanatory note to campers who aren’t fitting in. For example, “Most people shower every day at camp to avoid smelling bad. Please take a shower tonight and every night at camp. Use soap and shampoo. Put on deodorant after you dry off. Tell me if you are missing soap, shampoo, or deodorant.

Create flexible programming.
• Bookend the staff. Use a “front of the pack” counselor who leads the first campers in transition, and a “straggler” counselor who can arrive later with any campers who take longer.

• Create alternate versions of games or projects when planning activities, so campers can access them at various levels. For example, a soccer game could have a passing or goal-kicking game on the side.

• Avoid forcing children to participate. Train staff to carry backpacks of alternative activities (Frisbees, notebook, markers, cards, etc.) so campers who refuse to participate in the main activity can be happy nearby.

• Minimize ”unstructured time.” If everyone else has free time, provide several concrete options for the autistic camper, and let him or her choose from that list.

In Max’s case, his counselor and camp director wrote him a note telling him that it would be easier to make friends if he did what the other kids were doing, right when they were doing it. He was startled at this reasoning, but willing to try. Max then proceeded to join his group for many more activities. A few boys in his cabin also included him in their talent-show act, where his different humor was showcased and appreciated.

Sylvia van Meerten has been working at summer camps for more than a decade. She also owns and runs a business called Empower Autism ( ), which specializes in providing enrichment opportunities for people on the autistic spectrum and delivering seminars about autism for people off the spectrum.