“GOOD–MORNING–CAMPERS–!!!.” In iconic Robin Williams style, my husband bellows out this greeting each morning at the annual Bible camp sponsored by the church we attend. This has become a camp tradition and one of many reasons it is special to kids and staff. But if you ask me, one of best qualities of camp is that kids with special needs have been welcomed and loved here. My daughter, Katie, and her autism were one of the reasons this welcoming path was paved several years ago, and the tradition to support atypical children continues. What makes it work? Here are ten ideas for staff wanting to help children with autism succeed at a camp for typical kids. (Note these suggestions most commonly apply to children with autism who have moderate to good verbal skills, but may apply to a wider range of skill levels and other disabilities, as well).
1. Before camp, make sure key staff members talk to the child’s parents and can reach them for questions during the week. This gives a chance for parents to give information about specific sensitivities, calming techniques, potential rewards, and anything else that would help the child adjust.
2. Provide clear structure (post a visual schedule) and put the child in a cabin where the leaders generally follow the schedule and adhere to the rules (but are flexible too).
3. Pay attention to communication. Be straight- forward but kind in your dealings with the child. Make it clear what is appropriate and what is not. Find out if he understands jokes, sarcasm, etc. To be sure of understanding, ask her to repeat important communications back to you. Also be ready to “interpret” camp happenings, social interactions, inside jokes, etc.
4. Avoid the child’s major stressors, if possible, and have a plan for calming if you can’t. Make sure the child and staff know when, how, and where it is appropriate to take a break or to modify a task to increase chances of success. Identify ahead of time and provide a safe place and person (whom the child likes) where he/she can retreat to when overwhelmed.
5. Assign staff to look out for and stand up for the child, especially during unstructured time. The child with autism may not know what to do or how to act during these times and this is when other kids tend to tease, mock, or goad the child into poor behavior. This is a sad reality that needs to be kept under control as much as possible. Provide staff to supervise unstructured time!
6. Strongly encourage the other kids, especially those in his/her cabin or age-group, to be helpful and kind. With permission from the child and his/her parents, this might mean disclosing some information about the disability. One year I went to every girl’s cabin to explain autism so the girls would know how to understand and support Katie.
7. Allow for normally “unsanctioned” sensory breaks or calming activities if they help. Katie was allowed to bring her bicycle to ride around at camp during free time. This was an exception to the rule but kept her occupied and gave sensory support during unstructured and unsupervised social time. This prevented many misunderstandings, altercations and meltdowns.
8. Remember the child with autism is a child first and treat him/her that way. What does he like/dislike? What is motivating? What makes her feel successful? What are talents and skills? Give the child a chance to succeed during what is likely a challenging week. For example, at Sierra Bible Camp, we’ve seen some kids with autism blossom during their performances at evenings set aside for skits and songs.
Also consider what hurts his feelings or makes her sad? Sometimes what upsets a child with autism is not related to the disability, per se, but the fact that preferences are not met, he/she feels left out, lonely or home-sick– just like other kids.
9. Be creative and flexible, considering what the long-term goals are for the child. Do you want the child to return next year—and the year after? Then make it a positive experience the first year even if you have to break a tradition. At the very least, each child needs adequate sleep, acceptance, sensory breaks, and a friend or two. Sometimes activities with older or younger kids works well socially so she can either feel supported and nurtured by more mature kids, or like a leader and teacher to little ones. Don’t be afraid to step out of “camp as usual” in order to meet the needs of a child.
10. Most importantly—care about the child. Pray for patience, kindness and divine calm during unexpected outbursts or meltdowns. Leave your ego at home and remember you are at camp to prioritize what is best for the kids, not to do what is most convenient for staff.
I’m so thankful for the people who helped my daughter be successful at our camp from the time she was 5 until age 18. They were not autism experts—they just did their best to love and accept her. Sierra Bible Camp also gave out an “Overcomers Award” each year—awarded to the child who overcame significant obstacles to consistently attend camp and to maintain a positive attitude, even if their background or biology made “Christian behavior” foreign or difficult. This was not the award for most popular camper, best behaved camper, or for the child with the most Bible knowledge. It was for an underdog who never give up. I think Jesus must love this. My daughter received this award her last year as a camper—it was a dream fulfilled. I recall her walking forward to accept the trophy. As she reached the front of the mess hall, I stole a quick glance at our longtime friend and camp director who was to hand her the award. What I saw were tears of joy and pride welling up in his eyes. It’s that sort of love and commitment from God’s church that breeds success in our disabled or at-risk kids.