Unique summer camp builds social skills
Children's voices carry down the grassy path, breaking the quiet beside the pond, where Camp Determination's co-director Sue Kline and her parents, Jo Ann and Jim Kline, prepare for the next batch of fishermen.
Camp Determination is a weeklong summer camp for children, ages 8 to 18, who have been diagnosed with autism or Asperger's syndrome.
It's a muggy Thursday morning at Tall Oaks Conference Center, two miles east of Linwood. Cobalt blue dragonflies fly close to the water's surface and occasionally a fish turns, sending rings telescoping across the water.
A group of 10 children and four camp counselors approach the pond, where Kline and her parents bait fish hooks with slices of hot dogs.
Carleton, a young camper, introduces himself to a visitor. When the visitor refers to him as Carlson, he instantly corrects her, then pats her on the shoulder and says in a grownup voice: "It's OK, everyone makes mistakes."
A boy of about 10 puts a book on a bench and heads to pick up a fishing rod. The book might seem out of place on a child's camping trip -- it is "Mensa Brainteasers," filled with SAT-type challenging questions.
Each summer for the past nine years, children who might not otherwise have been able to enjoy a week at summer camp have done so -- at Tall Oaks Conference Center. Among the groups that rent the camp each year is the Autism Asperger Resource Center's Camp Determination. The AARC is headquartered at Kansas University Hospital, Kansas City, Kan. This camp is one of only a handful of camps for children and teens who have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders in the United States.
¢ Autism is a developmental disease that affects social interaction, communication, behavior, play and way of thinking.
¢ Asperger's syndrome includes difficulties with social interaction, and restricted and unusual patterns of interest and behavior. Autism and Asperger's have similar characteristics. Children with Asperger's Syndrome usually have above-average IQ, but they may have difficulty in participating in a conversation with others. The children may express resistance to changes in their environments. Source: Autism Asperger Resource Center
Camp directors are Sue Kline and Kay Otten, who hold doctorates in autism and behavior disorders. Kline is director of AARC, where Otten is director of special programs.
The goal of the camp, which includes nature trails, fishing pond, swimming pool, horses to ride and air-conditioned sleeping halls and dining room, is for the children to have fun and to interact socially, Kline said.
And, she added, there's another benefit: "Their mothers get a day off."
James Kline, Kline's father who's volunteering his fishing expertise to help at camp, gets a 2-pound catfish on the end of his line. The children take turns posing with the fish.
Jonathan reels in another.
"Come on -- you're the man!" Carleton shouts, clapping his hands. Other children cheer, as well.
Jonathan smiles for the camera. Click.
Sue Kline praises the children.
"Good cheering you guys," Kline said. "You were really cheering your friends on."
The morning's fun wasn't without challenges.
Children fishing across from one another crossed their lines.
"We caught a camper-fish," a counselor said, laughing.
As other campers fished Thursday morning, one child complained saying he'd rather be doing something else.
A counselor explained the complaining child wasn't one of the campers who has autism or Asperger's, but a peer. Out of every 10 youths at the camp, two are peers -- children who don't have autism or Asperger's.
Each year the camp has a waiting list of children who want to attend camp -- as well as of children who want to be peers, Kline said. Often, she said, peers are the siblings of children who have autism or Asperger's.
The price of attending a weeklong session is $650. Kline, who noted AARC doesn't make money on the camp, said some of the campers are able to attend because of scholarships. For instance, she said, one person donates a scholarship to pay camp tuition for a child of a single mother. And, an organization in a nearby town raises funds to pay for camp tuition for a child who lives in that town.
And some campers, like 14-year-old Faith, work to finance the trip to camp themselves. Faith held a garage sale, with the help of her mother, to earn money for camp.
Faith held tight to her fishing rod, her auburn hair curly in the morning's humidity, her green eyes bright.
"I think it's a good time," Faith said. "I like the food and the activities."
And, she liked the children.
"The kids I've met, they're very active in conversation," Faith said.
When asked if she wants to come back to Camp Determin-ation next year, Faith smiled and said, "Yes I do, I might."
Someone like me
While many of the counselors, who volunteer their time, are special education teachers, one is a former camper.
Katie Perryman has mild Asperger's. Perryman graduated from high school in May and plans to attend Emporia State University this fall, majoring in elementary education. This was her first year to attend the camp as a counselor.
The camp is well worth it, Perryman said, in that the youths develop socially.
"A lot of parents call and say the camp really helps with their kids," she said.
Perryman recalled the first time she attended the camp, as a young teen.
"It was different," Perryman said. "It was kind of weird being away from home. ... It was interesting to meet them (the other campers). It was kind of overwhelming to meet someone like me."
Casey Wood is a post-masters student at the University of Oregon. She's studying autism. Wood attended camp with two of her professors, one of whom brought a child of her own who has autism.
At Camp Determination last week, Wood was assigned to a young teen, Christina, who has severe autism.
As others in her group fished, Christina curled up in a lawn chair and pulled her T-shirt over her head. Occasionally she'd peek at the other campers.
Wood said she thought Christina, who was on her first camp experience, was adapting to camp.
"Yesterday she smelled my hair and put her hand on my shoulder," Wood said. "That tells me I assume she's feeling comfortable with me."
Like Perryman, Wood said the camp helps the children with their social skills.
"Last year there were some kids that wouldn't talk to anyone, wouldn't touch anyone," Wood said. "By the end, one of them came up and gave me a high five -- which was something so little but it meant so much."
Camp Determination draws campers from across the nation.
"This summer we're expecting 120 campers from 20 different states," Kline said.
In planning for camp, Kline said, the children's personalities are kept in mind.
"The children that are here often have anxiety disorders, they may have aggression, they get frustrated easily," Kline said. "So we try to prevent their stress."
And, she noted, the children change activities every 30 minutes to prevent boredom.
The AARC serves almost 30,000 people a year, Kline said.
AARC is what Kline calls the "next step" after a child is diagnosed with autism or Asperger's.
"Some parents have said, 'If my child had a cold I would know what to do,' But they don't know what to do about their children's autism.
"They may need help with discipline at home, at school and they don't know where to turn."
Rebecca Blocher, who formerly taught gifted students at Blue Valley High School, said her students have included teens who have Asperger's.
The youths may have IQs that are 140 or higher, but often they tend to have difficulty interacting with others socially and they may have difficulty establishing friendships, Blocher said.
A former student of Blocher's attended Camp Determination last year and this year. She said the camp seemed to have helped him socially.
"He went to camp and formed friendships and he was even going to have a birthday party with four or five friends," Blocher said. "The parents are thrilled. Can you imagine going up to 14 or 15 years old and having never had a birthday party with peers because you can't interact appropriately? ... That is a real success story."