Children With Autism Pair with Neurotypical Children for Fun Learning Experiences
Camp Connect gives children with autism a chance to have fun and learn while improving their communication and other skills through interaction with peers who may or may not have autism. U of A graduate students from the applied behavior analysis program and undergraduate students from the special education program support students from other majors to work with campers.
U of A students come from programs such as child development in the Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, and Food and Life Sciences.
“Camp Connect provided an inclusive camp experience for nearly 60 Northwest Arkansas students ages 5-12,” said Renee Speight, who led day-to-day operations of the camp. “The campers engaged in high-interest activities and projects while building relationships with each other.”
Speight is an autism program specialist, a board-certified behavior analyst, and an instructor in the special education program.
The three weeks of camp were organized by faculty and students in Inclusive Educational and Clinical Programs including Suzanne Kucharczyk, assistant professor of special education in the College of Education and Health Professions. It was the third year for the camps.
The peer support model was used in all three camps. One week is offered for younger children and one week for older children. This year, the first two weeks of camp took place at Leverett Elementary School on the edge of campus. A third week of camp invited campers to explore and create art at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
“Peer-based interventions are an evidence-based practice found to be effective in building the skills and experiences children and youth with ASD are working on, such as social skills, independence, communication skills, and so on,” Kucharczyk said. “Also, getting to know other kids with and without disabilities creates opportunities for building friendships.”
The theme of the camps at Leverett Elementary School was space. The campers made moon rocks, created pictures of aliens, and played with a robotics game in which they could make up space-exploration scenarios. Campers also played traditional games such as cards in their classroom and four-square and duck-duck-goose outside on the playground. A U of A student group called Space Hogs brought an inflatable planetarium for campers to learn about the solar system.
At Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, museum staff gave gallery tours, leading discussions about pieces of art in various exhibits, including the Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition. The museum staff also led studio time during which students made their own art, such as encaustic painting, where the campers applied melted, pigmented wax to paper and then drew patterns and pictures in the wax after it hardened.
The children who attend camp as peers take part in an orientation prior to camp that helps them to build awareness in skills to communicate socially, be helpful, get to know other kids, work as a team, and have fun together.
Chloe, 10, and Kaybrina, 11, are two girls who participated in camp at Leverett Elementary. Chloe said she wanted to attend the camp as a peer mentor because her little brother has autism. He’s funny and nice, she said, and the camp gives kids with special needs like him a chance to have fun with other people.
Making friends can be harder for kids with autism, Chloe said, especially if they spend time in school with other special-needs children.
Kaybrina, who has a cousin with autism, said, “I thought I could meet somebody new and have a great time.”
The girls said some children with autism are reluctant to talk to their peers but if you ask them about their interests, sometimes they will respond. Chloe said her favorite part of camp was making connections, while Kaybrina said rotating through stations kept the activities interesting.
“This year, in particular, campers had opportunities to build friendships, gain knowledge in academic concepts related to science through the incorporation of space, and explore their creativity and self-expression,” Kucharczyk said. “It’s been a wonderful summer and we are thrilled Fayetteville Public Schools and Crystal Bridges partnered with us to provide camp experiences that are like those kids generally have in the community. We can’t wait for next year!”