Summer camps for kids on the Autism Spectrum

For children who have been diagnosed with High Functioning Autism, Asperger's Disorder, ADHD, anxiety, depression and social problems, simple interactions with peers and adults can be as challenging as learning to swim, stepping up to bat, petting a snake, or singing on stage. Using traditional camp activities and a community of peers  to foster developmental and social growth, summer camps that serve children on the autism spectrum provide a safe and therapeutic, outdoor environment where kids with social difficulties can succeed and form friendships that often continue long after camp.

Pittsburgh-area camps for children on the autism spectrum range from day camps like Quest Camp or The Woodlands Foundation’s one-week overnight camp, both exclusively for children with special needs, to Camp WISP, The Watson Institute’s “Watson Inclusive Summer Program,” which integrates kids with social disorders  into mainstream day camp programs throughout the region. All camps require some form of intake interview to help parents and camp directors determine if the program is a good fit for the child, and parents are encouraged to ask about opportunities for financial assistance. Medical insurance may cover certain components of the camp day, but if a child already has an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), the child’s school district will often pay for or contribute towards the camp program.

Research by the American Camp Association (ACA) and youth development experts shows that summer camp helps all children build valuable life skills, but for children with social challenges, camp can be a particularly transformative experience.

The Power of Play

In 1989, child psychologist Dr. Robert Field was inspired to work with children in his clinical practice in a more naturalistic setting, where he could observe his child patients in group therapy sessions at play. He found that by providing a structured therapeutic environment that was also fun and social, where he was able to address specific issues as they arose, he was able to create effective change in his patients. Applying his clinical group therapy success to the camp environment, that same year, Dr. Field—a former camp counselor himself—founded the first Quest Camp in the San Francisco Bay Area as a psychotherapeutic program for children with mild to moderate emotional and social problems. Quest now operates seven camps nationwide for children ages 5 to 18 and follows the ACA’s accreditation guidelines.  In 2012 Quest Camp launched in the Pittsburgh area, where it offers a seven-week program on the Oakland campus of Carnegie Mellon University in association with Squirrel Hill Psychological Services.

Following Dr. Field’s therapeutic model, Quest Camp staff is trained to observe children in the camp environment and then teach new coping and social skills as problems occur. Field says, “While we rely upon traditional camp activities such as sports, arts and crafts, drama, singing and music, science and field trips, each camper is screened to assure appropriateness to our program and oriented to develop individualized goals to accomplish at camp. These goals can include emotional and social functioning. It is not unusual for a child to have a goal such as ‘initiate interactions to make more friends,’ ‘control impulses,’ or ‘pay attention to social cues and respond appropriately." To help children work towards their goals, a minimum three-week enrollment is required.

Research conducted in 20009 showed that the Quest system, which includes an hourly focus on positive efforts and rewarding those efforts with points that can later be redeemed for toys, significantly reduces the “global impairment” of a treated child’s psychological disabilities, including inattention, aggression, social relationships, and other measures found in children on the autism spectrum.

The Power of Peers

Kristine Gorby, Service Coordinator of Psychological Services at The Watson Institute and its Camp WISP program, believes that camp provides a unique environment where “kids learn skills that carry over to school and life – such as how to form friendships or engage in a conversation. Lunchtime is a big part of the day for us because most of our kids won’t speak, so at lunch we focus on how to start and maintain a conversation with a peer. We also work on sustaining activity in social environments, tolerating their peer group, and even organizational skills such as keeping track of their belongings throughout the day.”

Because Camp WISP places campers ages 3 to 16 in traditional camp programs such as YMCA Camps, Camp Deer Creek, and Chatham Music and Arts Day Camp, among others, Gorby works closely with parents to match each child to a structured program that will meet the child’s interests and needs. Now in its 15th year, Camp WISP typically pairs children by age and grouping, and assigns a dedicated counselor to move through the camp day with each pair in the camp setting. A Master’s level WISP staff person is also placed at each campsite to provide senior supervision.

“Teachers are so geared towards academics, in summer it’s really nice to put academics on the back burner and focus on the social component,” says Gorby. “Kids love it because they may not have many friends, or they may live in neighborhoods where they don’t have much opportunity for social interaction. At camp kids find they have so many peers right there ready to help you and they don’t even realize they are helping you. Being able to focus on that social realm while going swimming, doing arts and crafts and other traditional camp activities offers so many opportunities to work on social skills; if we don’t put children in camp we are depriving them of that social activity.”

Socialization is also the main goal of the Creative Arts & Nature Camp for Youth and Teens, a one-week overnight program offered by the Woodlands Foundation for ages 8 to 18, from June 23-28, 2013, at its Wexford, PA campus. Program Manager Heather Bright says, “The Woodlands offers a barrier-free environment where children with autism can feel safe and welcome as if it is their second home. At our summer camp children have the opportunity to spend an entire week with their friends. The Woodlands’ counselors are trained and encouraged to facilitate conversation between campers and model good behavior, which helps the children learn appropriate social behavior. Some of our other activities provide the sensory input that children with autism sometimes need to help with relaxation, such as swimming, dancing, music, and pet therapy.”

Founded in 1998, Woodlands also offers a Saturday “Cub Club” for six to 10-year olds, to help familiarize them with the camp setting and transition into the one-week overnight program, and provides year-round opportunities for children with social challenges to interact with kids coping with other disabilities.

Bright says besides the blend of recreational and social activities, the best thing about camp for kids on the autism spectrum is, “It’s camp! Nothing beats the fun and excitement of camp. The children are excited to spend the night here. They love seeing their friends for a whole week at a time. They love the activities and the food. They love seeing familiar staff because it reminds them of trust, love, and understanding. It’s really not just one thing, it’s the experience as a whole that makes camp so unique and meaningful.”