Camp Connect Offers Children with Autism Fun, 'Typical' Experience

Peggy Schaefer Whitby, left, assistant professor of special education, attends a tea party during Camp Connect sponsored by the University of Arkansas.
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Peggy Schaefer Whitby, left, assistant professor of special education, attends a tea party during Camp Connect sponsored by the University of Arkansas.

Some of the mothers were in tears when they dropped their children off at a first-time camp offered by the University of Arkansas for children with autism spectrum disorders.

They were tears of joy, explained Laura Reynolds, a volunteer at the camp.

“Some of the moms said they never had something like this,” Reynolds said.

She helped organize the camp at Fellowship Bible Church in Rogers with Hollie Lawless, a graduate student in the special education master’s program. Reynolds’ son Hunter, 11, receives services from the applied behavior analysis clinic operated by Peggy Schaefer Whitby and Elizabeth Lorah, both U of A assistant professors of special education who directed the weeklong camp.

On the second day, some mothers asked whether there were plans to offer the camp again next summer, Lawless said.

“They said it was nice to drop off their kids and walk away, not worrying about the experience they would have here,” Lawless said.

Autism is a neurological disorder. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that an average of 1 in 68 children in the United States has an autism spectrum disorder, which are all characterized by varying degrees of impairment in communication skills, social interactions, and restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior.

Playing and Learning

On one afternoon of the camp, nine pairs of children moved around two colorful playrooms shadowed by a U of A student or volunteer. Some of the children played with plastic utensils and plates, taking them from a molded plastic cabinet to the little stove and then to a table to pretend-feed dolls. Others pushed trains around a track and chased each other’s cars and trucks down ramps. They played with Legos, matching card games and puzzles. They sat at tables using glue and scraps of wrapping paper to decorate letters of the alphabet made of cardboard.

More pictures are posted on the Colleague news site.

“A lot of kids with autism don’t have a chance to go to camp,” Whitby said. “Some of the characteristics of autism – challenges with communication and social interaction – prevent them from engaging in the typical activities at camp. With the social deficits they experience, they are excluded from camp and that further exacerbates their difficulties.”

Camp Connect paired a child who has autism and a child who does not have autism, along with a U of A student or older volunteer, to help improve the ability of the child with autism to interact.

“It’s play but it’s learning,” Whitby said. “Some children with autism don’t prefer to interact so the adult prompts them.”

The U of A students – six graduate students and two undergraduates – also used applied behavior analysis techniques to prompt the children to use words to get what they want and to express themselves in other ways, she said.

Importance of Volunteers

Volunteers John Marc, who will start the fourth grade this fall, and Lauren, who will be a high school freshman, said they enjoyed their time with the children at the camp and thought they would like to continuing working with children. John Marc said the new friend he was paired with liked to play with cars. John Marc and Lauren said playing outside the late afternoon was a highlight of the day as the campers squirted each other with water guns and splashed each other in an area dotted with small wading pools. Lauren helped run the craft station.

Several adults involved in the camp said an important side benefit is the awareness and sensitivity gained by the children who volunteer to help. They take that expanded knowledge about peers with disabilities back to their schools and share it with other students.

“Every school has kids with autism,” Reynolds pointed out.

The children who volunteer also go home and talk with their parents about the experience.

Special Education

The camp was sponsored by Project Connect at the U of A and the applied behavior analysis program in the College of Education and Health Professions. Whitby established Project Connect with a $150,000 grant she received last year from the Health Resources and Services Administration in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Project Connect includes several initiatives to reach families of children with autism spectrum disorders throughout Arkansas, and Camp Connect was offered free to families of children with autism.

Whitby serves as an Act Early Ambassador for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention program to identify warning signs of autism and other development disabilities. She and Lorah teach in the Master of Education in Special Education program and graduate certificate programs for autism spectrum disorders and applied behavior analysis. Both are board-certified behavior analysts prepared on the doctoral level.

Tiffany Mrla was one of the graduate students working at the camp. She also works for a local school district as a behavior specialist. She expects to complete her doctorate in curriculum and instruction next year.

She has found that teachers, especially special education teachers, can feel isolated and reluctant to talk about a student they feel could be more successful in school.

“Often, they don’t like to talk about students who may be having problems,” Mrla said. “I’m trying to build a network among them because we are all going to experience this. We need to share what works so the child’s next teacher doesn’t have to start over. When more people realize others struggle, they are more at ease asking for help.”

Mrla, who formerly worked as a teacher, said she loved working directly with children but feels she can have a bigger impact by working with teachers.

Community Connection

Reynolds, parent liaison for Project Connect, is a member of Fellowship Bible Church. She said the church has a one-on-one Bible study program for children with disabilities, and church officials were eager to help when she approached them with the camp idea. Karen Campbell, a staff member at Fellowship Bible Church, directs the one-on-one program.

“Karen and the church have been very generous, helping with facilities, supplies and volunteers,” Reynolds said.

The families of some of the children at the camp are members of the church, Campbell said.

“This is a great place to give kids a really typical camp experience,” Campbell said. “The parents are excited about it.”

Lawless, who serves as project coordinator for Project Connect as well as being enrolled in the special education graduate program, said Camp Connect is part of a larger effort to provide information and resources to families. Project Connect is compiling a guide to resources statewide for families with children who have autism.

“It’s about connecting them with their communities,” she said.


Heidi Wells, director of communications
College of Education and Health Professions


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