Summer can be a perfect time for children and young adults to leave their everyday environments and discover new opportunities for skill development. Yet parents of children and young adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) often struggle with the idea of immersing their child in a new setting—especially if is a residential program. Families worry that a new place with new people and new rules may be too challenging for their child. They worry their child’s behavior may be too difficult or that he or she will disturb others’ experience.
Ramapo for Children sees these new experiences differently. Ramapo is based on the belief that all children and young adults seek the same things: to learn, feel valued, have friends and experience success. The Ramapo Approach centers on personal relationships, positive role models, thoughtful rituals and routines, collective celebration of individual accomplishments, open communication, and proactive reflection. By bringing these factors to bear in the context of emotionally safe, nurturing environments, Ramapo helps young people learn to align their behaviors with their aspirations.
Children and young adults with ASD are no exception. Children and young adults with ASD who benefit from the Ramapo Approach develop communication and relationship skills, independence and self-confidence. They have successful summers and take-home skills that move them forward in the classroom, at home and in life.
Summer Camp for Children with ASD
Children learn many skills during the school year – adapting to a time schedule, how to follow rules, what is appropriate interaction with peers and adults – but often times these skills are diminished or lost during the summer months. Children with ASD typically experience delayed skill development, making it even more critical to maintain and build on skills learned in school. The right summer camp can play a critical role in accelerating skill development.
Camp Ramapo offers one example. Camp Ramapo is a traditional residential summer camp in Rhinebeck, NY for children aged 6 to 16 with social, emotional or learning challenges, including children with ASD. The summer counselors and year-round staff are expertly trained to help children learn to live within a group, form healthy relationships, make good choices, develop self-control and experience success.
Living within a group helps children with ASD form healthy relationships – Jeffrey came to Ramapo with delayed communications skills and hyperactive behavior. In addition, he was hypersensitive to sound, so it was difficult for Jeffery to be around large groups. On the first day of camp, Jeffrey’s counselor brought him to the all-camp opening ceremony before the crowd arrived. This tactic helped Jeffrey feel comfortable with his surroundings not just that first night, but had a lasting impact throughout his weeks at camp. He became comfortable enough to manage group settings like the dining hall where he sat and ate with his peers.
Camp helps children make good choices and develop self-confidence – Michael came to camp having trouble sitting still and having frequent outbursts. Ramapo believes that difficult behavior like Michael’s is the language children use when their needs are not being met or the demands of their environment are misaligned with their social, emotional and learning challenges. Michael was really concerned about safety while at camp, and enjoyed acting as the camp’s security guard. Counselors would send him on secret safety “missions” that engaged his interests productively and made him feel valued. By giving Michael opportunities to succeed on his “missions,” his self-confidence grew; after eight weeks at camp, Michael improved on what was previously difficult, choosing to participate in activities without his usual outbursts.
The Staff Assistant Experience and Young Adults with ASD
Enhancing skills during the summer months is not only critical for younger children with ASD, but also young adults on the autism spectrum who may have difficulty transitioning to college or joining the workforce.
Ramapo runs the Staff Assistant Experience (SAE), a residential transition-to-independence program, with a summer session option, for young adults aged 18 to 25 with social, emotional or learning challenges. The participants, known as Staff Assistants, live and work alongside typically developing peers, which allows them to see firsthand the positive behaviors that build the social, independent living and job skills necessary for adulthood.
Becoming part of a team helps young adults with ASD develop social skills – Max had trouble connecting to others prior to joining SAE last summer; he frequently would avoid conversation in a crowd of people by staying busy on a hand-held video game. Max shared a cabin with a Ramapo staff member over the summer, which exposed him to regular one-on-one conversation and taught him how to build on a relationship. His experiences have given him a new perspective on his own capabilities, increasing his confidence and interpersonal skills. Max has learned to make friends, is more comfortable starting conversation, and even plans community events like group trips to the movie theater.
A supportive community helps increase independent living skills – Andrew began SAE after having trouble at his community college. Andrew lived in an apartment on campus with another staff member who modeled and taught Andrew real-life duties like creating a meal plan, doing laundry and household budgeting. His sense of responsibility and self-discipline increased markedly through this experience. Andrew also successfully completed the college credit summer course that instilled a newfound self-confidence. His parents Andrew’s independence after his leaving Rhinebeck, citing that Andrew used to think nothing of arriving an hour or more late, but is now much more consistent in showing up on time to his commitments.
Gaining job skills during the summer that carry into future work – Mark found his niche when he discovered his talent for working with children as a Staff Assistant at Camp Ramapo. The work began as a challenge, but soon he looked forward to meeting the next group of campers and helping them gain new abilities. The children looked up to Mark, and his confidence increased as he helped them experience success through the strategies he’d learned as a Staff Assistant. He was no longer only a person who received support, he was a person who supported others, and he truly enjoyed sharing the Ramapo approach with campers. Thanks to his newfound focus, he became eager to apply himself to a future working with children. With the help of his mentors and peers, Mark studied for a school aide certification test, passed with flying colors, and upon returning home, became a primary school teaching aide.
Skill development is an important part of growth, and no matter what age, summer can be the best time to mature and progress. In particular, residential summer programs have the experts and experiences for children and young adults with ASD to feel comfortable and flourish. Ramapo provides the supportive community and unique approach that enables these children and young adults to develop the skills to align their behaviors with their aspirations. A summer filled with proper support and an inclusive environment often can be exactly what children and young adults with ASD need to enhance their skills and be ready for the fall.
Mike Kunin, MA, is Director of Camp Ramapo, Jennifer Buri da Cunha, MA, is Director of Staff Assistant Experience, and Johanna Kinsley, MPA, is Communications Manager at Ramapo for Children. For more information, please visit www.ramapoforchildren.org or contact Johanna Kinsley at (646) 588-2308 or firstname.lastname@example.org.