Written by Phil Cerroni
Autistic children experience a summer tradition at Woodall Kids Summer Camp
By Sissy Courtney
Summer camp is all about having fun, learning new skills and growing as a person. Summer camp for children with autism and developmental challenges fit those criteria.
Autistic children struggle in varying degrees with cognitive, social, and communication skills. Studies show that one in every 88 children is autistic, and autism is four times more common in boys than girls. It does not discriminate based on a child’s racial, ethnic or social circumstances.
For most autistic children, summer camp is out of the question, but Woodall Kids Summer Camp in Irving offered six camps with campers ranging in age from 18 months to 12 years old. All of their camps were filled to capacity.
“Beach Camp was for the youngest children age 18 months to just over 3 years old, and Survivor Camp was for 10 to 12 year olds,” said Bethany Covington, Assistant Director of Outreach for the Brent Woodall Foundation for Exceptional Children. A preschool readiness camp served children ages three to six years old.
“We had a fantastic summer,” Covington said.“All of our camps were extremely successful. We put a lot of work into developing the curriculum but also in decorating the rooms in really fun ways. Every camp had a theme.”
“Our camp that focused on coping skills for children with anxiety had the Garden theme incorporating flower and trees and outdoor things that are relaxing,” Covington said. “We had music playing with birds chirping.
“Beach Camp for the youngest children focused on peer interaction, developing communication skills, and following simple directions.
“Preschool camp focused on school related goals such as knowing when to raise your hand, waiting to be called on, and taking turns.
“Survivor Camp focused on developing social goals for kids 10 to 12 like what to do when you’re feeling left out or how to respond to a friend when you’re not sure what to say,” she said. “We did it all with an island theme. When they walked in, there was a huge hut in the room with grass all over it. They had a tribal meeting each afternoon. We tried really hard to make it much more than just a social group. It was actually camp for them.
“Not all of our children are going to have the opportunity to go to ordinary camp, so we want to make sure that when they come here it is different and exciting. Most of them are really tired when they go home, but they’re really excited to come back the next day.”
Carley Waltenburg, a board certified behavioral analyst, oversees programming and said the older campers sometimes balk at coming.
“Most of our older kids think that social skills camp is really dorky and lame, so we have to do an extra good job of making sure it’s really fun and cool, so they don’t say next year, ‘Mom, I don’t want to go,’” Waltenburg said. “The decorations help make it look more like camp and less like a therapy session.”
“We incorporate a lot of games, and all of the camps had some sort of outdoor activity that included the sprinklers,” Waltenburg said. "They got into their swimsuits and played in water or sandboxes and other things that were really fun, but at the same time, they were working on their goals. Maybe they had to share the shovel while in the sand, or they had to take turns running through the sprinklers. These are all goals that we work on but in a fun and exciting environment.”
“It is always our goal to make therapy fun, and in a week long camp we can do that to a much greater degree than we can in a three-hour session,” she said. “We’re able to incorporate the entire group in this grand activity as opposed to one child going outside and playing in the water hose. It becomes more of a social focus.”
“We try to find a balance between working on developing difficult social skills and going outside and doing more sensory type things while incorporating fine motor and gross motor skills,” Covington said.
“We especially emphasize sensory activity for the younger children. Some of them are very hesitant to participate, so it can become a goal. At Beach Camp for the youngest group, their island time was a sand table. We also had a time they would play with shaving cream on a table.
“Day one, only two of my kids would even touch the shaving cream. By day four, all of them did it,” she said. “They had boats in it, and it became a really fun activity. The goal was not to make sure they touched shaving cream today.”
Playing with shaving cream and other activities had a purpose beyond fun and games.
“We had generalized goals but also individualized goals for each child,” Covington said.“One child might be fine touching the shaving cream, but they needed to focus on their play skills. The goal for that child was to pick up the boat, make noises, and recognize that this is to be played with. The child next to him might need to focus on that sensory aspect, being willing to touch new things or to communicate that they do not want to do that.
“The next child might be focusing more on the social aspect of it by being willing to stand next to their peers or to pick up some shaving cream and to share it with another child in the group. Giving back and forth is a skill. Another child might be focusing on learning to ask for the boat so that they can have a turn and hand it back and forth. These are things that our children struggle with. Beyond having a language barrier, they have trouble reciprocating physically.”
Teachers recorded data on skills the campers learned including eye contact with peers, eye contact in response to their name, and response when someone handed them an item. Teachers took notes on whether students understood simple directions such as ‘Here you go’ and ‘Give that to me.’ They took data based on a child’s response to adults and their response to peers.
Finding a voice
“Three of our camps had children who were completely non-verbal and did not speak at all,” Covington said.“At beach camp, we only had two children who did speak, and they were both the typically developing campers. The other children in the room did not have any verbal language that was functionally communicated.
“Four could make verbal sounds and did consistently, but the other three weren’t making any sounds. We used a lot of pictures, a lot of icons, and incorporated our speech in a way that they could respond to us in an appropriate way that involved their friends. One of the great times that we got to practice that was during Show and Tell. Since we were preparing for school types of things, we had Show and Tell every day.
“For the children who were non-verbal, we had pictures available,” she said. “One day, the children brought animals for zoo day. The teachers had pictures and colors available able to help the non-verbal children say, ‘Today I brought a red bird.’ We helped them by saying, “Hi, friends. I brought a red bird’ and helped them by being their voice. It’s been extremely successful because they’re participating in all the fun activities, but they’re also participating very actively in the curriculum.
“All of the camps involved typically developing peer models,” Covington said. “Beach Camp had three peer models. One of them had Downs Syndrome, and the other two were typically developing children.”
“It’s really helpful to have some typically developing peers to model skills,” Covington said. “When we went outside, we would split into two groups, each with a peer model, who showed the other kids how to play with sand or whatever activity we did. The peer models would be told to interact with each other. Even the very young peer models were good at the skills being taught such as giving items and taking items on command.
“Sometimes the campers are able to imitate their peer models independently or other times with prompts from the teachers,” Covington said. “Some children need to learn to put their hand out when somebody says, ‘Here you go.’
“Sometimes, the children don’t show us what they know or are learning, perhaps because of the size of the group or other dynamics, but when they go home, they show they actually did learn something,” Waltenburg said.
“In Beach Camp, we worked on ‘Put it away’ and ‘Give it to me,’ and another thing we did every day was to have each student hold up a poster of the sun and sing ‘Oh, Mr. Sun-Sun, Mr. Sun-Sun!’” Covington said. “Many of those children didn’t sing with me, but they would hold up their sun and shake it around. One of the moms emailed me that Friday after camp.
“Cleaning up the table was something we worked on at camp. She said since her son had learned the instructions of ‘Put that away,’ he had every day taken his plate and put it on the sink. After putting his plate away on Friday, he held up his placemat and started singing ‘Oh, Mr. Sun -Sun, Oh, Mr. Sun-Sun!’
“His mother was elated that he had learned both of those skills, to put things away and to give things to her when she asked,” Covington said.“It was so encouraging to me because when I looked around and nobody was singing, I started to wonder if the activity was beneficial to them. But for this child who never participated in that song during camp, to go home and feel comfortable to share that with his mom, was very encouraging.”