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Unique day camp helps autistic youth develop skills

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For autistic children in Johnson County, a special summer camp offers the opportunity to learn to cook a meal of spaghetti and meatballs by themselves.

They’ll dance to world music and learn to work together as a team by playing kickball. On Fridays, the kids will go out to lunch, try to rollerskate and cool off in the pool.

Camp Can Do provides a unique summer experience for children who suffer from autism. The camp helps maintain the structured days many of the children have adapted to over the school year. At the same time, it provides a place where autistic teens can learn how to interact and build confidence.

“It’s important to have structure for the kids that we work with. We want them to be active,” camp director Emily Behnke said. “And it’s awesome for middle school and high school students to interact with each other, build those social skills because they often struggle with that.”

During the two weeks of camp, most of the time is devoted to cooking simple meals such as eggs and pancakes, playing sports and games and doing science experiments. They learn to follow directions, how to wait their turn and how to work with other kids.

Special guests help teach how to sew on a button, make a résumé or do Zumba.

Older campers use Access Johnson County to go on shopping trips, learning to find items at the grocery store as well as becoming comfortable using public transportation.

“It’s little things that they need to know for later in life, but they don’t necessarily get at school,” Behnke said.

Every day, the campers are awarded “camp dollars.” The currency, which they receive from counselors, are given as positive reinforcement for success such as making it through the day without a meltdown or helping another child.

‘There’s less regression’

They use that to buy snacks, go on field trips to the pool or the rollerskating rink, and to purchase souvenirs from the camp store at the end of the week.

“They’re earning money then having to budget on their own. It’s a way to sneak in life skills,” said Amanda Cooper, one of the organizers whose son attends the camp.

The camp was created by Cooper in 2011 as a way to help her son and others like him.

Her son, Jack Abbott, suffers from autism and has a sensory sensitivity to darkness and noise. As an elementary school student, he had attended the Easter Seals’ Camp Ability every summer with other special needs children.

But when Jack turned 11, he was too old for the camp.

“We were looking for a program in the county, and there really wasn’t anything,” Cooper said.

She worked with other parents in the Johnson County Autism Support group, and they agreed to ask other agencies in the county to host a camp for autistic children.

When they couldn’t find another organization to do it, they planned a camp themselves.

Cooper found help from Indiana University’s recreational therapy program. She worked with a graduate student who had worked at other special needs camps and helped outline the steps that would make the camp a success.

They had to put together a program that mixed play with learning and helped students develop life skills such as money management and physical activity.

“Our goal is to keep building skills, so that there’s less regression when they start school again in the fall,” Cooper said. “They’re learning life skills that will benefit them after high school.”

‘The best thing for him’

Bargersville resident Sheila Benham enrolled her son, Jack Morris, the first year the camp was offered. She was frustrated that in the summer months she couldn’t find the activities and programs that were appropriate for autistic children.

“I didn’t want him to be just sitting around all summer with nothing to do. I felt like this was the best thing for him,” Benham said.

Now 13, Jack has thrived in the camp, going out of his way to talk about the field trips, the cooking and the friends that he’s made.

The camp started strictly for kids ages 10 to 14. But when some of the original campers reached the age limit, organizers decided there was still value for them to attend a version of the camp for teens.

Cooper had seen how Jack was thriving each summer and counted on going to camp. They’ve expanded programming to 18-year-olds.

“If we were just at home, I don’t know that I could find the opportunities to be out and around other kids,” Cooper said. “We want to just keep him in a routine.”

That routine has led to incredible growth among the campers. Behnke sees many of the same students year after year, and she has marveled at the skills they show even after one camp session.

“It’s awesome to see them mature,” Behnke said. “They are more independent. I can give them directions and let them go work on something, instead of having to stand over them and do everything for them.”

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