During the summer vacation months, many American school children head to camp. There are camps offering all kinds of special activities and geared to special interests, from athletics to computer technology to chess. And there are camps for children with special needs, like Mountain Adventure.
Singing silly songs, hiking in the woods and swimming are pretty typical of the activities youngsters enjoy at summer camps in the U.S. They are also activities at Mountain Adventure, says program director Elsa Berndt, but this camp is special. "We are the nation's oldest and largest overnight camp for people with autism."
Over the summer, 500 people aged four to 60 attend this facility near Black Mountain, or a sister camp near the city of Raleigh. Both are run by the Autism Society of North Carolina, a non-profit organization founded by parents of children with autism.
The 16 campers at Mountain Adventure when I was there were aged 12 to 17, all of them diagnosed with autism, a brain development disability that affects people's sensory experiences, social skills and communication. Their disability may range from mild to severe, but everyone with autism is welcome at the camp, as long as they are a resident of North Carolina. "We take anybody on the spectrum," says Berndt.
During the same week there can be campers who are extremely verbal and those who have more challenges with communication.
Pictures are used on schedules, menus, and during sing-alongs to help campers who are less verbal. "Research has shown that people with autism tend to be visual learners," says Jon Blalock, a therapist who specializes in autism and serves as a consultant for the camp. But he is quick to stress, "That's not across the board. There is individualism among children with autism and there are different strengths and areas of need."
To meet those needs, nearly every camper is assigned a personal counselor who has taken special training. That's one of the things that make this camp special. "In normal camps you don't see that," says Scott Badesch, CEO of the Autism Society of North Carolina.
"You see one counselor for 10 or 15 children, and the group decides on the dynamics. Our programs are very individually set, so we know the camper and we know what he or she wants, and the counselor who is helping that camper is going to make sure that he or she gets that."
Morgan Lovitt, 19, was assigned to work with Anan Saha,13. "He enjoys doing the activities that everyone is doing, but being in a group is sometimes too much." Lovitt says Anan sometimes "gets excited or anxious" when he's with the group. "He prefers the swing to anything else."
Hanging out on the swing is perfectly acceptable behavior here, but other campers, like Ryan Kiefer, 13, enjoy participating in group play. "At home I'm bored, not doing anything, but this I'm doing something almost every day," he says.
Most camp activities are structured. Hiking trails are marked with signs, giving campers activities to do along the way: feel the bark of a tree, look up at the sky, or smell soil in a bucket, hanging from a tree.
"For people with autism work is play and play is work," Blalock says. "The way that they comprehend their environment, things that are more structured make more sense, and therefore, perhaps are more calming than open-ended play you would find in typically developing 12 year olds."
But at this camp, some autistic children are using their imaginations and developing social skills that Blalock says will benefit them when they return home. "I believe that supporting recreational activities for people with autism is a very important part of helping them to live more independently in the community," he says.
Maureen Seegar agrees. Her 15-year-old son, Johnny, came to camp for the third time this year. "Normally he relies on me or somebody else to care for him, to really be there and direct him and tell him what to do." But Seegar says her son is more independent at camp. "And I can tell from talking to him that he has really enjoyed that independence, which is what we want for him."
Even Anan, who spent no time socializing with other campers, benefited from his week at camp. "I'm definitely thinking he has gained a self-confidence," his mother, Animita Saha, says.
Parents and campers also benefit from the connections they make here: new friends who know what is like to live with autism.