June 27, 2003

Camp for children with autism looks to go to the ‘next level’

Featured Image

Safari Greg, aka Greg Carter, a wildlife biologist, shows an albino python named Banana Bob to Sabrina Johanson as she pets it after the show. (photos by Neil Brake)

Camp for children with autism looks to go to the ‘next level’

Stewart Chun plays and leads the pack in a game of Red Light-Green Light in the gym.

Stewart Chun plays and leads the pack in a game of Red Light-Green Light in the gym.

The kids respond as Safari Greg  talks and shows them some different animals.

The kids respond as Safari Greg talks and shows them some different animals.

Safari Greg is whipping up the kids. The animal entertainer and educator is getting an auditorium full of children ready to see boxes full of reptiles. The children are loud and enthusiastic.

In the back row, a girl in pink with headphones on shouts and rocks back and forth, holding the headphones tighter to her head, clearly upset by all the noise. The child is immediately approached by a teen-age counselor who looks the girl in the face and talks to her. An adult arrives to help bring the girl to the back of the auditorium where she continues to scream loudly. They don’t leave. The counselors are not angry. None of the other children even seems to notice. Eventually the young girl begins to watch and enjoy the show with the others.

It’s all part of the day for the TRIAD camp, a day camp designed to help children with autism spectrum disorders. TRIAD, the Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders, is connected with both the VUMC Center for Child Development and Research and Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital.

TRIAD offers many programs to improve learning and socialization for children with autism. At the day camp, every outburst is an opportunity for learning and teaching. The camp program is unique for its use of peer interaction. Half of the campers are children with autism, half are children who express typical behaviors.

Allison Vice, 15, is a junior counselor. This is her second year at the TRIAD camp. Her 9-year-old sister, Morgan has autism and is at the camp. Allison says she doesn’t remember any period of time when it struck her that her sister was different, but the TRIAD camp has helped her to deal with her sister better back at home. “I’m not really big on kids. I even think I get along better with kids with autism,” says Allison. “But I’ve learned a lot and the camp has been great fun.”

Allison and Morgan’s mother, Tammy Vice says the camp has given her children much more than a good time. “It was wonderful to finally see Allison deal with Morgan without getting upset,” says Vice. “Even I was learning from her about handling things…there’s something about camp, Allison becomes a teacher.”

Misty Ballew, director of the TRIAD camp, says the camp has come into its own this year, but she has bigger plans for the future. In its three-year history, the camp has moved from various area churches to the University School, across from the Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital offices. It has expanded from two weeks with 25 children with autism, to three weeks this year. There are 70 children at the camp this year including 46 campers with autism, the other 24 are peers and often are siblings. Families come from as far away as Florida and Colorado to attend camp.

The biggest complaint anyone has about TRIAD camp is that it is too short. “Before we had this camp (the summertime) was just crazy,” says Vice. “But it takes Morgan a week just to adjust to the camp, and it’s over so fast.”

“Our goal would be a six-week program, I think,” says Ballew, “if we could deal with the expense. We’re really going to work this year on submitting grants. We know there’s money out there somewhere.”

Families pay $650 for the three-week camp. Doubling that cost to extend the camp for another three weeks would take the camp out of financial reach for many families. That’s why TRIAD is looking for grant money and other financial support. About 15 families get partial scholarships thanks to the Vanderbilt Community Giving Campaign and the Medical Staff Advisory Counsel, but more is needed.

Ballew and Vice hope that more media attention about the camp will help show the need. “I can’t say enough about what Morgan came back with and what Allison came back with,” says Vice. Vice says Morgan is making strides in communicating with her family, and has shown greater interest in her peers during the school year since she began TRIAD camp.

Vice says it was initially difficult to accept the diagnosis of autism, but today she loves her daughter, Morgan for who she is. “I only want for her to be happy,” says Vice. “Morgan goes to a place in people’s hearts that nobody can know and I’m just a believer in how God works and that whole plan. I would love for her to wake up tomorrow and be fine, but she is touching people in ways I can’t.”