Children On The Autistic Spectrum

• Getting into materials that are not intended for camper use. Example: A camper might grab art supplies from an off-limits shelf, or might enter the maintenance shed while walking by.

• Using materials or equipment inappropriately. Example: A camper might paint a bench or a table instead of a birdhouse, the project under consideration.

• Being rude to staff or other campers. Example: A camper might comment that singing camp songs “is stupid,” or continually interrupt other children.

• Struggling to bond with other campers. Example: A camper might take a joke too far, or become offended by a comment that was not intended to be mean.

• Not participating in the same activity as other children, or not participating in the same way. Example: A camper might want to throw a dodge ball at counselor referees, instead of at the opposing team.

Fortunately, most of these behaviors are not emergencies. Unfortunately, most camp staff will feel as if these situations are emergencies because it is stressful to feel “out of control” in one’s work with a camper who is supposed to be in the staff’s care.

One way to address this feeling is to do a short “safety check.” If a camper is acting in an unusual way, staff members should ask themselves, “Is this dangerous or just weird?” If the behavior is simply odd, but not dangerous, the members should take a deep breath and focus on having a positive interaction with that camper.

Most camps have procedures for truly dangerous behavior, and counselors are trained to respond according to policy. Most odd behavior is not a true emergency, and most true emergencies already have protocols.

Autism, Anxiety, And Visual Learning

In a recent series of interviews, I asked adults with autism about anxiety (commonly associated with autism). Each of them reported feeling highly anxious more than once an hour, every day. New places, unclear expectations, and crowds were cited as high-anxiety situations.

Summer camp, by its nature, can produce anxiety for many campers. The level of anxiety increases for new campers, and even more for new campers on the autistic spectrum. Addressing the anxiety directly, by clarifying expectations and ordering the events, can be helpful.

Our staff members usually clarify the expectations at camp, but we do not always communicate in a way that is well-suited to youngsters with autism. The following factors make it difficult for people on the autistic spectrum to understand the expectations at camp:

• Anxiety—Rarely is someone a good listener when anxious. A person hears and understands better when calm.

• Auditory processing is difficult—Long verbal statements can be difficult for campers to follow. Visual information is often easier to process.

• Difficulty interpreting the tone of voice or facial expressions—Children with autism often overlook social nuance in voice, tone, or face.

For example, if one speaks in a frustrated tone but doesn’t indicate a specific behavior to stop, a young person with autism might completely miss the implied hint to halt the behavior.

Directly stating, “Please put your hands in your lap,” is better than the somewhat vague “Keep your hands to yourself,” and much better than the frustrated admonition, “Some people are not focusing.”

The trifecta of being anxious, having verbal-language challenges, and missing social cues makes it extremely likely that campers with autism will behave oddly. Luckily, there are some easy and affordable ways to set these young people up for success.

Show campers what will happen during the day.

• Write out a detailed schedule for the week, and post it in the cabin and in the dining hall.

• Make a small daily “pocket schedule” that a camper can bring with him or her.

• Spend some quiet, one-to-one time with a camper with autism on the first day to go over his or her schedule.

• Refer to the schedule frequently (especially a few minutes before transitions occur), and point to it while speaking.

Set clear and blunt behavior expectations.

• Write the rules (short and positively phrased), and post them in a variety of settings. The cabin rules are usually written at the end of the first day, but that might be too long to wait for a camper with autism.

• Refer to the rules (while pointing at them) at new activity venues.

• Write down social expectations directly in a note, and hand it to an autistic camper (e.g., “Always ask a staff member if you want to go somewhere different. Running off alone is not allowed, but I can take you where you want to go.”)

• State expectations without asking. “In 2 minutes, it will be time to put your shoes on” instead of “Do you want to get ready to go?”

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