Program provides summer camp experiences for UMF students, autistic children
FARMINGTON - A special summer camp will be running for the next four weeks on the University of Maine at Farmington campus. The campers will take part in the traditional activities: swimming, arts and crafts and field trips, while the counselors will pick up valuable life experience in interacting with children.
What makes it special are the participants. The campers are children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), while the counselors are UMF Psychology students.
The program, having completed 10 years of camps, is a joint effort of the Autism Society of Maine and UMF. It has two goals: give college students an opportunity to work with children with ASD and give the campers an opportunity to socialize with peers and enjoy the standard summer fare, within a structured camp geared toward their needs.
"They get to do all of the fun things kids do at any other camp," said ASM Director of Programs Cathy Dionne. Activities include visits to Webb Lake, playgrounds, the bowling alley, seeing movies and arts and crafts at the UMF campus. There are special offerings as well, including a visit from the Mad Science program and a trip to the Maine Wildlife Park in Gray. Parents and siblings are encouraged to attend many of the events.
The camp is broken into two sections, one for younger kids, ages 5 to 9, and one for 10 to 15-year-olds. One of the central objectives of the camp, Dionne said, is to provide an opportunity for the campers to socialize. UMF and the society purposely hold the camp in late-July and August, Dionne said, because that's when most school systems don't run their own summer or school-year programming. For some children with ASD, that can be slow time of year, socially.
"That's the main goal," Dionne said. "Socialize with their peers." It was like any other camp, she added, except "the needs are different."
Counselors provide sensory breaks, for example, and plenty of therapy equipment campers can use. The camp is held in the St. Joseph's Parish Hall, which has several separate rooms allowing for a quiet room, a high-energy room and so forth. Instructions may be given in the form of pictures, rather than verbally, and the UMF counselors get lots of one-on-one time with their charges.
"It's a really unique and wonderful relationship," Dionne said.
Professor Susan Anzivino, chair of UMF's Psychology Department, agreed. She's been involved in camps over the previous eight years.
"It's been a wonderful partnership," Anzivino said. "Cathy and I joke that we've kind of got it down to a science."
The most important thing that UMF students take away from the camp wasn't the college credit, Anzivino said, but the hands-on experience. Generally, each counselor will work one-on-one with a camper.
"They learn that kids are kids, first and foremost," she said, regardless of whether the child had a diagnosis or not. "Hands-on always makes the academic studies come to life. We can talk until we're blue in the face, but the experience makes it all make sense."