Children On The Autistic Spectrum

“How’s Max holding up?” I ask a camp director who recently agreed to host this camper with autism.

A little understanding goes a long way in helping autistic campers succeed at camp. © Can Stock Photo Inc. / jhandersen

“Um,” she says before pausing. “He did pretty well after the first day. But it’s still not going great with the boys in his cabin.”

“Uh oh. What’s up?” I thought of 10-year-old Max’s wild first day at camp—dashing off to do some unauthorized wading in the lake and an impromptu redecorating of his cabin with paint from the craft shop.

“Well, he settled down and everything. It’s mostly that he doesn’t do what the other boys are doing. He’s always doing his own thing,” the director informs me. “We try to get him involved, and, of course, put-downs aren’t allowed, but … he’s simply not fitting in too well.”

Campers On The Autistic Spectrum

In the last couple of decades, autism—a psychological diagnosis first clearly defined by Leo Kanner in 1943—has become more prevalent. Like most diagnoses, its severity varies along a continuum, with Asperger’s Syndrome on the less-severe end and severely autistic, nonverbal children on the more-severe end.

Many summer camps now routinely host a camper or two on the autistic spectrum. Whether families disclose a diagnosis or not, it usually becomes apparent that certain campers need extra support, especially from a social standpoint.

Children with autism behave differently because they think differently. The defining characteristic is limited perception of other people’s thoughts, behaviors, and emotions. Without this so-called “theory of mind,” people on the autistic spectrum cannot read social cues with as much facility as a typically developing person.

Misunderstanding—or simply not seeing—others’ points of view can cause some odd behaviors. Understanding, accommodating, and responding to these differences in a supportive way are keys to promoting the success of anyone at camp on the autistic spectrum.

What To Look For

Some common behaviors for campers with autism include:

• Difficulty transitioning between activities or spaces. Example: A camper might take longer than everyone else, become upset with a transition, or might be in a big hurry to get to something new.

• Talking too much or not talking at all. Example: One camper might silently look at an object when a counselor addresses him, while another might discuss her favorite topic at lightning speed, without pausing.

• Not hearing or not listening to counselor directions. Example: A camper might run ahead to a different activity area and not respond to a prompt to “stay with the group.”

• Not responding predictably (or at all) to others’ attempts at conversation. Example: In an ice-breaker where campers say their name and a favorite sport, a camper on the spectrum might speak briefly about World War II but forget to say his name.

Autistic campers may need help interpreting social cues. © Can Stock Photo Inc. / jhandersen

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