Callier Autism Camp Combines Fun With Therapy
Sep. 7, 2011
Small groups of children, mostly boys, spread out around the large room at UT Dallas’ Callier Center for Communication Disorders in Richardson. They sat cross-legged, hunched over or stretched out flat on their stomachs. They happily worked together, decorating pillowcases as souvenirs from a special week spent making friends and learning new ways to deal with the challenges of autism.
What might seem like a routine activity to many day campers represented a notable step forward for the children of Camp InterACT, who have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), which make this type of enthusiastic teamwork rare.
“It’s so good to see my son enjoy doing activities with the other children and figuring out how to get along with the other kids he’s met this week,” said Shawn Procter of McKinney, as she dropped off her 7-year-old son at the camp. He was diagnosed in January. “It’s so unusual for Andy to give details when we ask him questions. But when I’ve asked him about what he’s been doing at camp, he is actually elaborating as he tells us about making costumes or playing games.”
“I could tell when they were having a really good time, but so were the staff members,” said Berkley Berry, the Camp InterACT director.
The speech-language pathologists of Callier hope to make this camp an annual summer event. They signed up 17 for the August pilot program, but had several more names on a waiting list. Berkley Berry was camp director, and it took her team many months to develop the right combination of fun, therapeutic activities for the elementary-age group.
“This was an amazing experience for us, to see these kids interact so well and get to be themselves,” she said. “I could tell when they were having a really good time, but so were the staff members.”
Among the highlights of the week was a play that the campers performed for their parents, complete with costumes and scenery they designed over several days. A magician visited the camp another day, and students worked on problem-solving, social skills and language development during daily “fun shops” that consisted of games and crafts.
The students left each afternoon with a sheet of tips for continuing the therapies they worked on during the day. The strategies were designed to help the children get along better in and out of school, with the hope of improving their academic performance and their social skills.
Julie Slott of Plano said her son, Jack, frequently gets extremely frustrated with games and lets a minor mistake ruin his day. He is in an integrated classroom during the school year, so this was a rare chance to see other children with similar behavior.
“He is usually the one child in the center of the room spinning around, but he notices when the other children did it here during the camp,” she said. “I can tell that he wants to get along with the other children and the adults, and he couldn’t wait to come to camp each day.”
“There are not a lot of programs that help these children maintain their skills when they’re not in school," Callier's Suzanne Bonifert said.
Suzanne Bonifert, who heads Callier’s clinical speech-language program, assisted Berry during the camp, along with several graduate students.
“I loved every minute of it,” she said. “There are not a lot of programs that help these children maintain their skills when they’re not in school. I hope we’ll be able to do this every year.”
On the last day of InterACT, the campers also sounded eager to repeat the camp next year. Brendon Nichols, 7, said he had a “great time” the past few days.
“I had a lot of fun playing games, and I made good friends!” he said.
The Callier Center has provided group and individual therapy for patients and families touched by autism for more than 30 years. It offers a variety of educational, therapeutic and socialization programs for children and adults with ASD throughout the year. Early CLASS, a preschool program for children with ASD, has openings and is enrolling new students for the fall and spring.
Students worked on problem-solving, social skills and language development in daily game and craft sessions.
The Callier Center team worked for months to find the right combination of fun, therapeutic activities for the group.
The strategies were designed to help the children improve their academic performance and social skills.