Group holds autism camp

SUWANEE - Claire Dees knew there was a need for an autism support group in Gwinnett County when 100 people showed up to Spectrum's first meeting 10 years ago.

Now, Spectrum's unique summer day camp designed for children and teens with autism has attracted families from nine counties, said Dees, the group's co-president.

The group ended the last of four week long camp sessions Friday with a carnival of games and activities such as musical chairs, bowling and face painting.

"I like all of the clown acts of what we did today," said Ian Pearce, 10, a student at Harbins Elementary.

About 90 students attended the camp each week, and many attended multiple sessions, Dees said. The camp is staffed with certified special education teachers and paraprofessionals - educators who are trained to work with autistic children.

The low cost of the camp - $150 to $250 a week compared to more than $600 a week for other special-needs camps - is also attractive to families.

On Friday, Spectrum was presented with a $15,000 grant from Jackson EMC, which allowed the group to admit more campers this summer and to bring in a music therapist, Dees said.

Dees said the camp is popular with families who have had trouble finding summer activities for their autistic children. Some parents have said their children have been kicked out of traditional camps, she said.

Duncan Creek Elementary student John Foshee, 10, said he first attended the camp two summers ago. He said he was too busy with other activities last summer but wanted to return this year.

"I really had fun in 2006. I got to do a lot of fun stuff," he said. "The best part about camp is meeting new friends."

Duluth resident Linda Kilgore, a paraprofessional who works with severely autistic children, worked at the camp this summer so her two children, who both have the disease, could attend. She and her husband are still trying to sell their house in Macon, making it difficult to spend money on things such as summer camp.

Kilgore said her boys, 7-year-old Kent and 10-year-old James, are enjoying the program.

"I love it. It's fabulous for these kids," Kilgore said. "It's a comfortable place they can be themselves and really enjoy the summer."

This year, Spectrum began offering a counselor-in-training (CIT) program for high-functuning older students. That branch of the program taught teens about responsibility, gave them a sense of pride and provided them with social interaction training, said Jennifer Rolfes, a camp staff member and teacher at Mill Creek High.

Matt Clarke, a student at Hooper Renwick School, said the experience made him want to become a camp counselor, although there were some parts that were challenging.

"It was a little bit hard controlling some of the kids when they would run away," he said.

Eric Sweet, who was also in the CIT program, said he learned a lot.

"We've been helping others. We've been taking out the garbage. We've been doing crafts," he said. "It's been fun."