Autism camp provides fun for campers, experience for counselors

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FARMINGTON — When school starts and the snow comes and goes, Adam King knows it’s time to apply for Summit Camp.

King, now 14, celebrated his fifth birthday during his first year at Autism Summer Camp, held at St. Joseph’s Parish Hall in Farmington. He has spent two weeks of summer at the camp every year since.

“Adam looks forward to it,” said his mother, Sue King. “Once the snow melts, he lets me know we have to get an application.”

The camp is a combined effort of the Autism Society of Maine and the University of Maine at Farmington, said Joel King, UMF professor of psychology and camp director.

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Started in 2002, the camp is offered at no charge to children ages 5 to 15. The camp offers two weeks for adolescents and two weeks for younger children. Some parents travel from as far away as Winthrop, Portland and Sumner to let their children attend.

The camp is a place where youngsters can have fun safely, without judgment, teasing or bullying, said Hattie DeRaps, assistant director.

For 50 weeks of the year, most children with autism are in school programs and therapy. They attend summer school to help keep up with what they’ve learned, but doing so means there’s no summer for them to enjoy what other children do, she said.

“They are here to have fun,” she said, as campers dressed in capes for Super Hero Day passed by. “And they can be themselves.”

It is a typical camp experience. There are a lot of field trips, including bowling in Augusta, a movie at Narrow Gauge Cinema and a day at Webb Lake, she said. Traditional camp activities are planned, including swimming, arts and crafts and games, including a water balloon toss Tuesday and even quiet reading times. The camp provides opportunities that match the child’s needs.

Each camper is paired with a counselor, a student enrolled in a UMF advanced psychology summer course. It is a one-on-one experience that provides fun for the camper and experience for the counselor.

Each UMF student who completes the four-credit course receives a $500 scholarship to help pay for it, King said. The scholarship’s available through a grant from the Autism Society of Maine, given by the Doug Flutie Jr. Foundation for Autism.

While the camp can accommodate up to 12 campers in each of the two-week sessions, only seven are enrolled for each session, King said. There are more children who want to attend, but fewer counselors available who can take on the five-week commitment in the summer. Along with the four weeks of camp, there’s one week of training for counselors.

Although the camp lasts only a few hours a day for two weeks, the bond between counselor and camper grows quickly, he said.

There are a lot of tears on the last day for both campers and counselors.

The directors agreed they get as much out of the camp and look forward to it as much as the campers do, he said.

Watching a camper like Adam grow and develop is rewarding, DeRaps said. While a young Adam was prone to tantrums, an older Adam now has the ability to accept things better, she said.

The camp is considering ways to draw students to serve as counselors from other colleges, King said.

This year, a student ready to start college chose to become involved because he knows when he becomes a teacher, he will have a variety of students in his class and this will help him learn how to deal with it, King said.

DeRaps, an English teacher at Mt. Blue High School, became involved with the camp after working with autistic children, she said. She also has autistic children in her classes.

The opportunity also extends to parents.

One parent who had never been away from her child was hesitant about the camp experience, King said. Once she realized her child was fine, for the first time, she has a few hours to herself.

Others find parents who are facing similar struggles, Sue King said. When Adam decided to try staying up nights, she found she was not alone. Other parents had also had that experience.

The camp is supported by Autism Walks, held annually: one in Farmington, one in Bangor and a third in Biddeford.

abryant@sunmediagroup.net

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