By Susan Langlois
Heading home from camp, I realized something was different when my oldest son said, “Mom, if you want to stop at the ice cream place, I’ve got money left from my camp account,” While keeping an eye out for the ice cream place, I also noticed that my youngest son was sitting in the front seat. I didn’t remember hearing any complaints about who got the front seat, and we only left camp 10 minutes ago. Yes, something was different.
When we arrived home, the mystery continued. I didn’t get a chance to ask my three kids to unpack the car. They already had both hands full, marching with their camp gear, and headed directly to their bedrooms. An hour later, I had my first clue. My daughter asked, “Mom, we’d like to invite Brian over sometime soon. He was a new kid at camp this year. You’d like him.” The other kids nodded in agreement.
I love it when my kids make new friends. So I asked if Brian lived nearby. He did. “So let’s see if he’s free to hike with us on Saturday.” My daughter grinned and offered to text Brian—and she added—he’s autistic.
“Googled” autism just to be sure I knew what to expect. I learned that experts basically describe autism as a broad spectrum of social and communication behaviors that can make interacting with others sometimes difficult.
Also, many people who have Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) can also have repetitive behaviors and often a restricted range of interests. There is no one, universal characteristic for people who have ASD. Well, Saturday should be a new adventure. It sounds like our new friend Brian and my kids really enjoyed camp.
The positive experience that this mother and her children had because of camp is not unusual. Research shows that when children without ASD interact with children who do have it, there can be a positive influence on families and friends. There is mounting evidence that when children are in a respectful learning environment with other people who have differences in abilities, people listen more carefully and are more accepting of those differences. They are also more likely to learn from others who have differences, especially in how they speak and react.
In an interactive, concentrated, daylong environment like camp, children can spend more time getting to know their peers. Campers see that everyone has differences, from who excels in sport, who wears glasses, who has a food allergy, who is quiet, to who likes to tell stories. The individual differences are amazing and endless. When campers feel more comfortable with themselves, they can take more responsibility for their choices, and become kinder and more accepting of other people’s differences.
It’s a great feeling when children find they can connect with anyone and be friends. These positive camp experiences build confidence and social skills. When someone who already loves to swim congratulates a friend who is afraid of the water but goes under and back up without choking, it develops the capacity for empathy. Also, learning to appreciate that everyone struggles at something, which often happens at camp because of the wide range of activities, is a life lesson. There is no shame in having a weakness because it is an opportunity to improve; this can build confidence in trying harder at what isn’t learned easily or on the first attempt. Campers learn that it is no one’s fault when people get upset in noisy environments, or when they are happy, whether they like to high-five or to flap.
In 2015, one of every 64 children was born with ASD. The rate has been increasing since the 1960s when five people in every 10,000 were diagnosed with autism. While researchers, parents, and communication specialists are determined to find the cause, there appears to be no one, specific cause. The most current evidence points to a combination of factors. The greatest influence appears to be genetic. For example, there is a 90 percent chance that, if one twin is autistic, the other twin will also be. Some environmental factors, in some cases, are linked to autism. There continues to be more research to find the cause, and thankfully, the increase in the number of ASD cases since the 1960s appears to be leveling off.
How we interact and educate children is changing. Many teachers, parents, and researchers know that children who are not on the autism spectrum have better educational outcomes when they are in class with children who do. Providing inclusive camp experiences for children with ASD has taken a long time developing, but it is just in time. We are beginning to understand and appreciate the amazing contributions of people on the spectrum.
Temple Grandin is one of the most well-known people on the autism spectrum. She is one of many people with ASD who progressed to earn a doctorate and contribute great discoveries to society. We also know that people with ASD benefit from spending time outdoors and trying new activities. Developing summer-camp experiences for people with ASD can be the next best venture for camp business owners. As all campers mature and enter the world of work, as well as build their own commitment to a strong community, people with ASD will be a part of that community. Working cooperatively in teams is an important part of life and essential to succeeding in rewarding professions.
Learning To Adapt
Camp business owners may want to provide specific training for their staffs to ensure that campers who are on the spectrum and those who are not get the most enjoyment and benefits from their activities. Here is a great place to start: an introduction to ASD in a 10-minute video, free and available online at http://www.interactingwithautism.com. This can be downloaded by selecting “Understand” and then “Voices on the Spectrum.”
While the needs of campers on the spectrum vary widely, many of the staff-training programs cover best practices in order to contribute to a positive camp experience:
- Find what every camper’s strengths are and build their confidence by offering activities that will put those strengths into practice.
- Before transitioning to a new activity, give a preview about what to expect, and then give clear and concrete instructions about how to participate.
- Build variety into camp meals. Be sure to include individual favorites, and give as many choices as possible.
- Schedule enough downtime—everyone needs a break in the action to rest and process what they experienced.
- Teach, model, and reward the principle of the “The Golden Rule,” that everyone should show mutual respect.
Susan Langlois has more than 25 years’ experience as a college professor, athletic administrator, camp director, and sports-facilities consultant. She is currently the campus director at Springfield College School of Human Services in Manchester and St. Johnsbury, N.H. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.