August 2, 2002

VUMC camp benefits children with autism

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Ethan Wilson, a child with autism, gets help on his mask of faces from Piddy Pat Taylor, a junior counselor at last week’s autism camp. (photos by Dana Johnson)

VUMC camp benefits children with autism

Peer counselor Norma Courey, right, talks with Grace Goad, a child with autism, during a small group activity about showing your emotions.

Peer counselor Norma Courey, right, talks with Grace Goad, a child with autism, during a small group activity about showing your emotions.

Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s TRIAD, the Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders, is currently wrapping up its second session of Autism Summer Camp, a unique experience that brings together skilled autism experts, future professionals, children with autism and peer counselors.

Autism is a disorder shrouded in mystery, a complex developmental disability that is characterized by difficulties in verbal and non-verbal communication, social interactions, and play activities. Known as a spectrum disorder, the symptoms of autism can present themselves in a variety of combinations, from mild to severe.

TRIAD, a component of the division of Child Development in the department of Pediatrics, provides specialized services for children with autism spectrum disorder and their families. TRIAD team member and speech pathologist Misty Ballew is the camp director for the current session.

Ballew and TRIAD director Wendy Stone are grateful for the donations received both from Vanderbilt and the private sector that help fund the camp.

"We have used donations from the Vanderbilt Medical Center Staff Advisory Committee to provide special programs such as a presentation from the zoo and a balloon artist," said Stone. "We have used funds awarded to us from the Vanderbilt Community Giving Campaign and donated by Mrs. Sylvia Zisman to provide scholarships for children to attend camp"

The camp is the only program of its kind in Tennessee and campers have come from across the state to participate. In some cases, families stay in a hotel for the three-week duration of the camp.

“Camp is wonderful. We don’t have anything like it in East Tennessee,” explained parent Cheri Howlett. “The teachers are great.”

The first session of this year’s camp was held at Christ the King School. The current session is being held from July 22 until Aug. 9 at Belle Meade United Methodist Church.

Unlike traditional camps where there are campers and counselors, the autism camp has peer counselors, junior counselors and adult counselors who work with the campers. Peer counselors range in age from 6 to 11 and serve as role models for children with autism. The campers interact with peer counselors, observing basic social skills such as taking turns or raising a hand before speaking. The 12- to 15-year-old junior counselors also serve as role models and offer guidance to the campers.

The use of the peer counselor model benefits not only the campers, but also the counselors themselves, teaching them acceptance of kids who may be different. Several of the peer counselors and junior counselors have siblings with autism. Participating in the camp teaches them that they are not the only family who struggles with autism. It also teaches them the importance of giving back to others.

Peer counselor Aaron Mirtes and older brother Luke have a sibling with autism. Both are participating in the camp, Aaron as a peer counselor and Luke as a junior counselor.

“I like crafts and helping the kids with autism,” Aaron said as he busily worked on his art project. “I like to help them during games.”

To recruit peer and junior counselors, the TRIAD team sent out an e-mail to VUMC staff, explaining the program. Many children signed up to participate, including Dr. Mark Courey’s two daughters, Irene, 7 and Norma, 5.

“I like being able to help the kids who have autism,” explained Irene. “I play with them and talk to them.”

Younger sister Norma piped in: “I like playing with them, too. I also like doing art projects.”

In addition to the peer and junior counselors, there are adult counselors, many of whom are Vanderbilt graduate students. Participating in the camp offers them an opportunity to work with children with autism, giving them insight into the various ways that autism can manifest in verbal communication limitations, difficulties with social interaction and behavioral differences. Since many of the graduate students are pursuing advanced degrees in psychology, the experience is invaluable to them.

“I heard about the camp last year from another counselor,” explained Sara Williams, a Vanderbilt graduate student in psychology. “Through the camp, I gain practicum hours for my program. This is the only program in the state for this population of children. I wanted exposure to this population.”

Because autism is a spectrum disorder, understanding the behaviors and motivations of a specific child can be an arduous process, almost like detective work. Some children respond to physical stimulation while others shrink away from it. Some children gravitate towards art projects while others refuse to participate. The fact that the manifestations can be so different makes it difficult to diagnose and treat. It may take days or even weeks to understand an individual child’s motivations and responses.

“There is no cookie-cutter approach to treating those with autism,” said Ballew. “Each child is different.”

However, the counselors also find their work to be gratifying. Beyond just the clinical aspect of their work as counselors, there is the satisfaction of knowing that they are helping the children as they lead activities and teach skills.

“The most challenging aspect is how different each child is and trying to figure out what approach each child needs,” added Williams. “But finding the right approach, the way to connect with that child is by far the most rewarding experience.”

Most important is the impact the experience can have on the children with autism. Most experts agree that early intervention can result in dramatically positive outcomes for young children with autism, especially those who are considered “high functioning,” meaning that their symptoms are not as severe. Being in a structured environment that emphasizes proper social interaction and developmentally appropriate behavior can benefit all of the children. Many of the children are aware that they are different. Being in an environment such as this camp can be a reassuring experience for them.

“I like decorating pictures and playing games,” said camper Chad Howlett, 9, from Powell, Tenn. Chad paused for a moment and then added, “I like making new friends.”