By Melissa Eelman, Staff Writer
This summer, children with Autism will be splashing in the lake and zapping each other in laser tag as they enjoy a summer camp program tailored to their needs. Camp Summit, hosted by The Autism Society of Maine and the Psychology Department at UMF, will provide a safe place for the kids and a learning experience for student counselors.
There are two, two-week sessions, one for kids ages 6-10 and one for 10-15 year olds. All of the kids have different abilities, and most have difficulty with social interaction.
Despite these hardships, the kids seem to have a positive experience at camp. “The kids do very well with their counselors,” said psychology professor Joel King. “We emphasize to the counselors you are making a commitment,” said King. “You have to come every day because the kid comes for you.” Counselors receive a week of training before camp actually starts. “The training is really useful,” said King. “We learn a lot about the counselors and match them with kids who have similar interests.”
Camp Summit is located in the basement of St. Joseph’s Parish here in Farmington. There are four separate rooms with various activities, ranging from Legos to trampolines and exercise balls. The kids get to choose what they want to do each day. They also go on a lot of field trips.
“We do them almost every other day,” said King. Field trips range from movies at Narrow Gauge Cinemas to bowling in Augusta. “Everyone is so nice when it comes to this stuff,” said King. “The Narrow Gauge people are awesome; they let us come early, so we have the theater all to ourselves. They keep the lights up high and the sound down low for the kids.”
The FRC also allows the camp to host laser tag, which the kids really enjoy. “The philosophy of the camp is for [the kids] to have fun,” said King. “Throughout the year kids are in therapies. We are not here to give them therapy.”
Senior and former counselor, Taylor Sisk loves seeing the smile on the children’s faces. “Generally, kids with autism don’t get to go to summer camp,” said Sisk. “The best part is seeing them have fun.” They do not have to follow a strict order of events. “There was one kid that wanted to go outside during lunchtime,” said Sisk. “So I took him outside and we blew bubbles while the rest of the kids ate lunch.”
UMF students pay tuition to be a counselor in the program but receive course credit and a $500 scholarship. The opportunity is advertised, especially in the education and psychology departments, for students to get first hand experience working with children who have autism. King feels that this program is beneficial to those who plan to work in the classroom. “It is a great experience for education majors because most don’t know what it is like to work with a child with autism,” said King. “The rate is high, like one in sixty, so the chances are high that they will have a student in their classroom with autism.”
Director Cathy Dionne believes that the camp is beneficial for everyone involved. “The camp’s biggest strength is educating the college students and providing an environment where children with autism feel accepted,” she said via E-mail.
Sisk agrees that the camp is very accepting. “[The kids] get to be themselves,” she said. “They don’t get teased or made fun of.”
Parents of children with autism, ages 6-15, apply for the program. Those who will benefit most are selected to participate. The camp is completely funded by the Walk for Autism, through the Autism Society of Maine.