Friday, January 25, 2013

Challenging Asperger's at Camp

Evan Davis, 12, is a proud camper of the Aspire Summer Camp.

Evan Davis has never insisted on anything in his life. But he is not going to budge on this.

“There is no way I’m not going to Aspire, Dad,” Evan pleads. “I have to go.”

After attending the MassGeneral Hospital for Children Aspire therapeutic Summer Camp last year, Evan, 12, is bursting to start another fun-filled summer of swimming, fishing and boating. It was a season of growth for him in many ways – making new friends, forming leadership skills – but most importantly, he developed his social skills in an environment supportive of his needs. Aspire, though it provides the typical summer camp experience, tailors its therapeutic program for children with Asperger’s Syndrome and related Autism Spectrum Disorders.

“Often, what’s amazing is if you look out at the camp, it just looks like a bunch of typical kids having fun being with each other,” says Scott McLeod, PhD, Executive Director of Aspire. “They’re relaxed and comfortable about who they are because they’re around so many similar kids. They don’t worry so much about behaving in a quirky or unexpected way, and it really frees them to take more social risks and try new activities.”

Evan, diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome when he was in the second grade, is the oldest of three boys. In summers past, he and his brothers would swim together in the mainstream, small town camp in Sharon, MA, but there were several times when Evan’s sensory and behavioral issues proved difficult for camp counselors to manage. When Evan’s mom, Lauren Andrews, learned about Aspire, she says she thought the camp could be particularly helpful at a turning point in Evan’s life. He was finishing up elementary school and preparing to enter a new middle school for sixth grade in the fall. Aspire’s summer program seemed an opportune way for Evan to foster greater self confidence and independence for the big change, Lauren thought.

With the help of a grant from the non-profit organization POISE (Providing Opportunities for Independence and Social Experience), Evan’s family was able to afford the camp. The results were transformative, Lauren says.

“My son always has something negative to say about everything. We just went to Universal Studios in Florida, and he even told me how awful the trip was because he couldn’t use electronics for a week and went to bed late,” Lauren says. “Well, all I can say is, he has not one negative to say about Aspire.”

Before going to Aspire, mornings were a time of misery and meltdowns. Evan was consistently between 30 minutes to an hour late for school because of his executive function and sensory processing issues. Struggling to leave the house, Evan would protest that the cold would “cut him like a knife” or the sun would “burn his eyes,” Lauren says. During the summer, though, Evan was always on time for the Aspire summer camp. And, as he transitioned into sixth grade this past fall, Lauren noticed his ability to take more initiative in getting ready for school in the morning, complete his duties and have a self control he did not have prior to attending camp.

“The camp was everything I hoped would happen,” Lauren says. “There are still things that he needs to work on, and he’ll have to work on them every day of his life. But he had a more successful sixth grade because of the camp, and that’s phenomenal.”

The camp, which focuses on children ages five to 15 with autism spectrum disorders, aims to give kids a typical summer camp experience, with the added benefit of therapeutic interventions to help children become socially competent, develop self-awareness and hone self-management skills. The camp counselors, an integral part of the experience, have varied backgrounds in special education, psychology, speech therapy, occupational therapy, art and recreational therapy. Children are typically split into groups of six, with two adult counselors and a supervisor shared by three groups, and much thought is put into the groups, says Mary Beth Kadlec, ScD, OTR/L, Aspire Program Manager for Child Services and Camp Director. A successful group will match kids with other kids who have similar issues, and pair them with staff attuned to those needs, Kadlec says.

Christine Morrissey, the group leader for Evan’s group, says he and his group formed friendships fast but had their challenges. Perspective taking was a particular challenge for Evan, Morrissey says, but he wanted to work on it. During games when Evan and his group members would get in an argument about the rules of a game halfway through the game, Morrissey suggested they agree on the rules ahead of time so they knew what to expect. Evan and his peers began making game contracts to prevent the arguments and have conflict-free play time.

“There were numerous times when Evan would just wow us with the language he was using to help peers during a game,” says Christina Lazdowsky, supervisor for Evan’s group. “He was often right by the side of whoever was having a difficult time, explaining how to work through a disagreement with friends. It was really impressive for us to watch his progression through the summer in his ability to help his peers.”

While he and his peers learned social and behavioral strategies, they also participated in the traditional elements of a summer camp – swimming, boating and archery to name a few. The camp is comprised of over 100 campers and has two sites, one at Hale Reservation in Westwood and one at the Boys and Girls Club in Charlestown. The children from Charlestown travel to Hale Reservation two days per week to also participate in the outdoor activities. Lazdowsky says the goal is for the kids to have fun without feeling like they’re working on their issues. Evan’s memories of camp are what any excited kid would share: stories of fishing and meeting new friends.

“Usually I don’t like outdoor camps, but this one was really good ‘cause I got to ride in kayaks and everybody there was really nice,” Evan says. “I liked fishing and we built custom rods. And every summer there’s a camp theme, and this year’s theme was bugs. I was a praying mantis.”

After exchanging numbers with the rest of the campers in his group, Lauren says Evan still keeps in touch with his camp friends. There’s a reunion coming up, too, and there’s “no way in the world he’d miss that,” Lauren says. Evan doesn’t insist on much, but when it comes to Aspire, he won’t budge.

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