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Learning with Children with Autism

September 27, 2019

Another Way for week of September 27, 2019

Learning with Children with Autism

Mr. Scott Showalter on an unbearably hot day when the air conditioning was off, but determined to dress up for the “Lion King” theme!

Mr. Showalter holds the 20 or so daycampers of Camp Jigsaw spellbound as he chats with the puppet on his one hand, doing a pretty fair ventriloquist imitation. The love and skill he has for interacting with children who sometimes just can’t handle sitting still or being quiet or waiting for their turn, flows from him and over the room.

One of the highlights of our summer was volunteering two weeks (my husband) and one week (me) to help with a half-day camp for children at various places on the autism spectrum. Neither of us are professional educators or had any experience with children with autism although we’ve known some families with specific issues.

The camp was for children kindergarten through grade 5, and organized because kids with autism issues often feel like they don’t fit into a traditional summer day or overnight camp. So they miss out on the fun of other kids. This camp was held at a local elementary school.

We had a lot of good old-fashioned fun, becoming kids again ourselves. There was gigantic bubble blowing, water fights, magic shows, time with a therapy dog and trainer, Kung Fu artist giving lessons, daily snack time, yoga, water balloon baseball, old fashioned storyteller, bowling, roller skating (many children for the very first time), a jump park and large local water park, making music, rock painting, dunk tank, relay races, balloon animals, cooperative games, and playing Twister on a mat covered with shaving cream. The program for this camp is free for families; volunteers, organizers, civic clubs and churches raised funds and donated snacks and other supplies. Some invited speakers and performers donated their time.

We found ourselves not only enjoying the activities with the children, but that interacting with them and the other adults was eye-opening, educational, and a “Mister Rogers” review of things like being kind. Having good manners. Saying please and thank you more often. Since children on the autism spectrum are frequently frustrated by issues which keep them from being like their classmates and friends, learning ways to de-stress or cool off was another learning.

If we “caught” a child being kind or doing something nice for someone else, we rewarded them with a small plastic gem, and each day there were total goals set for the gems children accumulated. If the group of children reached the number set for that day, they each received a simple take home prize—such as cheapo plastic sunglasses, binoculars, safari hats. If you are thinking: rewards—what a gimmicky way to get children to behave and cooperate! The counselors remind us: don’t you (or didn’t you—for those retired) also work for the reward of a paycheck? Yep.

My husband signed up first after our friend Joe had experienced an awesome two weeks last summer with the inaugural camp—he called it life changing. It was a great success for children, parents, teachers, and schools. This camp was for kids from four elementary schools in our area and we’d love to see other areas follow suit. The founder and spark plugs behind the day camp include Scott Showalter mentioned above, with pre-kindergarten teacher Holly Blais, (who first worked at a camp for children with autism in Pennsylvania), and Jill Rice, speech pathologist. Each camper had an adult volunteer alongside, plus numerous middle and high school mentors who participated in the fun.

Scott would open each morning’s activities with a motivational speech setting out some goals for the children, such as being a participator, communicating with others, staying in the activity space, and being polite. One morning as he huddled with us as volunteers and leaders before campers arrived, he shared how he and his wife have a dog Bella “whose daily life consists mainly of being in the house, in the back yard, or occasional walks or trips. But every morning she can’t wait to start a new day. She jumps on our bed and wiggles all over to wake us up, just as excited as she was the previous day.” The Showalters find her exuberance exciting—even if they’d sometimes appreciate sleeping a little longer.

Showalter encouraged us to face our new day with the daycampers with the enthusiasm of a lively dog. This advice was very apt, as some volunteers had to deal with outbursts or meltdowns of children.

Ready for a new day? Bring it on with the energy and eagerness of a young dog. And remember your manners, even when your day doesn’t go as hoped. There are lessons to be learned!

Perhaps the best way to get a feel for what we experienced is to simply share these photos, mostly shared by Sydney Coffman and Ruth Breeden Sonifrank.

 

For a free booklet, “Dealing with Autism as a Family,” email me at anotherwaymedia@yahoo.com or Another Way Media, P.O. Box 363, Singers Glen, VA 22834.

Another Way is a column by Melodie Davis, in syndication since 1987. She is the author of nine books. Another Way columns are posted at FindingHarmonyBlog.com a week after newspaper publication.  

 

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