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Autistic children form hard-won connections at summer camp designed for them

Sacramento: Summer camp for autistic kids helps for connections

Camp MIND, run by the UC Davis MIND Institute, helps autistic kids connect with each other and develop social skills.
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Camp MIND, run by the UC Davis MIND Institute, helps autistic kids connect with each other and develop social skills.

When Calder Gates comes home from school, he never talks about what happens there. Once, the 10-year-old boy was beaten up by other students, and his mother didn’t know until two days later when another mom told her.

Calder’s silence, his mother Kiki Gates said, is a product of his autism. The developmental condition makes him anxious when he’s around people or has to juggle different activities. Often she has to prompt him with questions to get him talking.

But when Calder comes home from Camp MIND, a summer camp for children with neurodevelopmental disorders run by the UC Davis MIND Institute, he can’t stop telling stories about his experiences there.

“He was talking about it until bedtime yesterday,” she said. “He comes home talking about the dancing exercises and singing ‘I’m a bright light and that’s the way I am.’ It made me cry because he never does that.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in 68 U.S. children are on the autism spectrum, with the wide-ranging symptoms including social challenges, language impairment and repetitive behaviors.

Camp MIND offers an affordable outlet for Sacramento area autistic children, costing $100 for five days. Between 9:30 a.m and 12:30 p.m., children practice social skills, manage anxiety and stress and learn through sensory activities. The program is in high demand since most camps for special needs children cost at least three or four times more.

“It’s fun and I get to be myself,” Calder said. “I can’t actually be my crazy, normal self at school.”

Erin Roseborough, a child life specialist and coordinator of Camp MIND, said she started the camp last summer after she tried to find programs for her daughter and realized there were few camp options for children with neurodevelopmental disorders. Her daughter, Brooklyn, gets extremely shy around other people and doesn’t look at them, Roseborough said.

“It was hard to find a camp that wasn’t overnight and didn’t cost a fortune, so I wanted to try it for myself,” she said.

In group exercises, children practice how to introduce themselves and recognize emotions. Each morning, Roseborough chooses an emotion of the day and prompts children to describe how their faces and bodies react when they feel that emotion. For example, when the emotion of the day was anger, kids shouted that their “eyebrows turn down,” their “bodies feel tight” and their “faces scrunch up.”

The camp also incorporates sensory activities such as dancing, yoga and science experiments. The kids make volcanoes out of baking soda, food color and vinegar and create lava lamps with water, vegetable oil and Alka-Seltzer tablets.

When the children take their lava lamps home, they can use them as “calm down bottles” when they’re upset by taking deep breaths and watching the oil and water slowly separate, said Caitlin Jensen, a staff member at Camp MIND.

The camp’s staff also initiate interactions between children. If a child withdraws during play time, the staff will pair two children and find things they have in common to help them build a relationship. When one little girl hid under a play structure during recess recently, a staff member sat next to her and talked to her. She then asked another child to come over and included her in the conversation.

“We try to initiate things for them and show them how to initiate things together,” Roseborough said.

Roseborough’s daughter bonded with another girl over gymnastics. They now play the same games at recess and join in activities together.

Class sizes for each Camp MIND session are capped at 12. Three of the four sessions are full, with a waiting list for the July 10-14 session. The camp runs until July 28; six spots were still available as of Friday afternoon for that session.

“It felt like I won the jackpot when we got in,” said Kirsten Spall, mother of 10-year-old Robert. “For kids who need that support in social skills, or for kids who are quirkier and can become a target, it’s hard to find a camp that’s going to be a safe place for them to learn what they need to learn.”

After the first day of camp, Spall said Robert told her “ ‘Mom, I don’t mean to be rude or mean or anything, I just like being with other kids like me. I think they’re just easier to be with.’ 

“That was a big moment, I think, for him to realize that and be OK with it,” Spall said.

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Robert Spall, 10, plays basketball with a volunteer at the UC Davis MIND Institute's summer camp on June 29 in Sacramento. Emily Zentner ezentner@sacbee.com

Marjorie Solomon, professor of psychology and behavioral sciences at the MIND (Medical Investigation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders) Institute, said the children transform once they start playing with each other day in and day out.

“When you come into an environment like this where everyone is a little bit like you and the professionals around you are really strong in facilitating your interaction with other people, and then you see people on a regular basis, that can be really transformative,” Solomon said. “It really helps improve self-esteem when you know you can have a friend somewhere.”

The camp also provides parents the setting to share resources.

“Parents are exchanging information and setting up play dates,” Roseborough said. “It’s becoming like a network and support group for them.”

“It’s almost like a weight has been lifted,” Spall said. “As a mom, the stress of putting him in a traditional camp weighs really heavy on me but I think it weighs heavier on (my son). So I think when he walked away that first day seeing it was really supportive, he just walked away really happy. He knew when he left camp, he wasn’t going to have to tell me he was put in timeout. He could report to mom and dad that ‘I was successful.’ 

Molly Sullivan: 916-321-1175, @SullivanMollyM

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