Learning through art
Special camp helps autistic kids express themselves

SNELLVILLE - Elijah Cook had a rough morning Tuesday.

His mother was in a fender-bender while driving him to camp, and the boy, as many autistic kids tend to do, couldn't let go, his teacher said.

That is, until the 6-year-old drew a picture.

"He was able to get past it," said Meg Petersen, a teacher who works with the autistic children going to a weeklong art camp at Pharr Elementary. "With the picture, he can close the matter. He's fine now."

In fact, Elijah worried later that morning about climbing a water slide, but he eventually worked up the courage, with help from his new friends, some of whom had never been able to make connections because of their conditions.

"We're just trying to teach them to make friends and have fun," said Mary O'Connell, a special education teacher and mother of an autistic teenager who serves as coordinator for the Spectrum summer camps.

About 32 kids, ranging from those with non-verbal conditions to siblings of autistic kids, are attending this week's art camp. Other programs, such as a technology camp, a drama session and an overnight camp, will reach as many as 300 kids this summer.

Corey Pratt, a 10-year-old, showed off the puppy he molded from clay, then turned to a mural his group began Monday.

"The scene we had was the sea. This was the whale I made," Corey said, pointing to the jellyfish, starfish and sharks his classmates added. "We do a lot of cool stuff. ... I like doing crafts."

Claire Dees, a member of the Spectrum autism support group, said many parents don't feel comfortable sending their kids to camp because people often don't understand their behaviors, but it is important for the kids to learn social skills as well as more pragmatic and educational experiences.

Teacher Darika Stevens said art helps with that.

"Just to feel those materials they haven't used or even to hold a crayon the right way is a great thing," she said. "Even though the outcome isn't as great as a regular (education) student, it is a great experience for them."

The projects also help them learn communication and following directions, O'Connell said.

"It's so great," 8-year-old Van Sensing said, holding his clay dog up and bouncing on his seat. "Now I'm going to make a statue."