Camp for Kids with Autism Teaches Hands-on Lessons
Dressed in matching red T-shirts, 30 children have been crisscrossing campus since mid-June for typical summer camp activities: art and crafts, singing and dancing, listening to stories told by counselors.
They are the 2011 campers in the Radford University Summer RiteCare© Clinic, sponsored by the Scottish Rite Foundation for children with autism. Campers this year range in age from 23 months to 16 years. They vary in ability from non-speaking to high functioning.
“We are so fortunate to have the support of the Scottish Rite,” said Diane Millar, associate professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders and director of the camp. “I am not sure they truly understand the extent of their kindness. For the past four years, we have been able to focus on the unique challenges faced by children with language disorders due to autism.”
Scottish Rite and the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders have collaborated to offer an annual summer program on campus since 1995. Faculty members and students from other disciplines are also involved.
This year’s staff includes graduate students and 20 other volunteers, including one graduate student’s mother – “She is fabulous!” Millar said. Music therapy sessions this year are led by students Brent Beeson and Stacey Hargis, dance by student Brandi Holland, and art by Jessie Perkinson.
“We try to create a ‘camp’ environment so that children are able to practice their language skills in a natural context,” Millar said. “This is impossible in a sterile therapy room in which children work one-on-one with an adult. For many of our children, they receive more therapy during camp than they do all year at school.”
Millar and Patricia Rossi, an instructor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, developed the program, manage it and work closely with participating families.
An essential part of camp, which is in session three days a week, is including equal numbers of children who have disorders and peers who do not. These peer models – some siblings, others children of staff members and volunteers – help to recreate the scene on a typical playground or in a school classroom, Millar said. This year’s camp roster includes 14 children with autism spectrum disorders and 16 peers.
Parents come to camp too, attending workshops that prepare them to help their children at home with the lessons learned at camp. Families apply to participate and attend for free, with a stipend offered to cover costs such as transportation to and from campus.
“In addition to changing the lives of children with autism, the Scottish Rite transforms the lives of their families,” Millar said. “During camp, parents are able to work alongside the therapists to learn the techniques we use.”
This year’s program staff includes two speech-language pathologists from the Floyd County Public Schools: Jessica Cartwright and Pam Linkous.
“This summer, several parents have told me they feel blessed to have found us,” Millar said. “I think we are blessed to have the Scottish Rite believe in our program and give us the support we need to do all we can for these incredible families.”
Camp opened June 13 and concluded July 1 with a luncheon honoring the Scottish Rite Foundation, which included therapy simulations, musical presentations by the campers, and a book reading by James Cole, Scottish Rite Masons’ Sovereign Grand Inspector General in Virginia. Cole also presented a check in the amount of $33,000 to Raymond Linville, dean of the Waldron College of Health and Human Services, to help fund future clinics. To date, the Scottish Rite Foundation has given more than $720,000 to Radford University to support initiatives that enhance children's literacy and language skills.
“The Scottish Rite would like to thank families and friends and those who continue to make the things happen that you saw here today,” said Cole during the check presentation. “I especially want to thank the families and parents who bring the children to camp and hopefully, by the grace of God, this will continue to improve their communication.”