Partnering With Parents

By Sarah Shaw Dougald
Photos Courtesy Of Autism Ontario Kids Camp

Autism Ontario Kids (AOK) Camp & Adult Summer Program (AOA) is a day camp for children, youth, and adults with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The camp was established 26 years ago by parents whose children were not able to be supported by municipal or private day camps because the needs were too extensive. Currently, 48 clients are supported each week by 76 staff members.

A great deal of time is spent gathering information from parents before camp even begins. Through an extensive registration package and a visit with the assistant director, there are ample opportunities to pass on this knowledge related to behavior and sensory issues, so programming is ready to accommodate the most difficult of needs.

Dedicating this amount of time may be a luxury for some. And supporting campers with their own counselors is likely very rare. We provide each camper (ages 4 to 32 years) with his or her own counselor—or in some cases, two counselors. This is possible because the parents began the program with the principle that full disclosure was necessary and that no camper would be “kicked” out of camp because of behaviors. Seventy-five percent of campers would not have any other summer program to attend if it weren’t for this camp.

Incorporating Autistic Campers
Any camp can provide opportunities for this special population. First, determine which organizations in the area offer training on working with individuals with an ASD. Some camps offer free or low-cost training because there are more opportunities for this specific population. Seek out staff members at local colleges and universities who specialize in programs related to the developmental-disability field or education. Hands-on experience with this population is invaluable.

Autism is a complex neurological disorder that affects one in every 88 children throughout North America. Each individual is affected differently by autism, which is why it is termed the Autism Spectrum. There is no cure. The high rate of incidence means that all camps across North America will have some campers with an ASD—whether disclosed or not. So the quicker you educate yourself on how to support this population, the better it will be for everyone.

The Benefits Of Practical Programming
At AOK Camp & AOA Summer Program, campers are exposed to many community-based activities. Swimming, arts and crafts, singing camp songs, and playing games are part of this curriculum just like those of other camps across the country. Unique programming for the autism community also is included. Music therapists expose campers to music and movement activities; yoga is offered so campers can challenge their flexibility, balance, and gross motor skills; exotic zoos introduce campers to kangaroos and lizards—all within the safety of the camp. Then there are the sensory afternoons, when the camp turns into a shaving-cream haven for those who want to cover themselves with the foamy, tickly cream and enjoy the multi-sensory experience while playing outside among sprinklers, hoses, and water guns.

There are opportunities for campers outside the camp as well. Wild Wednesdays are reserved for trips to water parks, zoos, and amusement parks to enhance campers’ abilities to deal with new situations and large crowds. Visiting local restaurants each week and practicing social skills, as well as going to a sensory-friendly movie, provide campers with experiences like the rest of the population enjoy. Campers even attend a professional baseball game in Toronto, wearing jerseys to cheer on the home team!

As a “fringe benefit,” the excursions serve as an educational tool for the general public. While participating in community activities, many people engage us in conversation, and are supportive of the program and the services. With so many people being diagnosed with an ASD, everyone knows someone who has autism, so the need for this type of camp has never been greater.

A Family Victory
Of course, this type of camp is not without its challenges; some campers display disruptive behaviors, seizure disorders, or non-verbal communicators, but the victories are huge. Seeing a camper being able to communicate for the first time with the use of an iPad, or another camper attempting to climb a rock wall, or a family feeling like “just another family and not a family with a child with autism” makes the program worth it.

And the benefits can be found in the home environments as well. Families report fewer challenging behaviors because camp keeps the children busy each day. In engaging them in a significant number of physical activities and sensory exposures, families report their loved one sleeps well each night after being at camp and playing in the pool for hours. This is important respite time for families, many of whom would not be able to work during the summer if this program didn’t exist. Inevitably, some staff members become part of the larger autism family since they are hired by families to work with the children year-round.

The families are our biggest supporters. Without their expertise, we would not be able to do what we do. So please develop special relationship with the families to ensure campers are fully supported, no matter the behavior or need. In doing so, it will make the camping community so much stronger.

Sarah Shaw Dougald is the chapter manager for Autism Ontario Kids Camp & Adult Summer Program for the Autism Ontario York Region chapter. Reach her at Chaptermgr.york@autismontario.com .