Camp teaches social skills, independence to children with autism

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WINDER -- It's Monday night, and the kids at Camp Journey are getting ready for the dance.

After donning skirts and dresses and spraying themselves with glitter and body spray, the girls leave their cabin and walk up the path to the dining hall. Within a few minutes, the boys file in wearing polos and button-up shirts.

But before the music begins, the kids sit through a short lesson on dance etiquette.

The campers, who have autism, learn the appropriate way to ask someone to dance. Emily Becker, 10, volunteers to come to the stage and model the proper behavior.

It's just one example of how instruction blended together with the activities at the weeklong overnight camp. Whether the campers were having fun or sitting down for a meal, they were also learning social skills and engaging in activities designed to increase their independence and self-confidence.

Autism, a disorder of neural development, is characterized by impaired social interaction and communication and by restricted and repetitive behavior. Camp Journey is staffed by certified teachers and paraprofessionals who understand autism and know how to handle problematic behaviors.

"During the summertime, this is probably the only time (the children) socialize," said camp leader Mary O'Connell, adding that many of the children would be content to sit on the couch and play video games all day. "They also struggle with independent skills. .... We're trying to work on some of those kinds of things."

Camp Journey, which began Sunday and ends today, is one program offered by Spectrum Camps and Clubs. During the summer, Spectrum also offers day camps.

Spectrum has been organizing overnight weekend camps for a few years, but last year was the first time the group planned a weeklong overnight camp. Camp Journey is held at Camp Twin Lakes -- Will-A-Way in Fort Yargo State Park in Winder.

The activities -- including swimming, biking, using paddleboats, navigating the ropes course, playing group games and more -- were facilitated by Camp Twin Lakes, a nonprofit organization that runs the camp operations and facilities designed for children with serious illnesses, disabilities and other challenges.

While a few children had to be reminded to put away their books during meals or encouraged to join the group, most of the campers approached each activity with enthusiasm.

Charlie Grove, 16, said one of his favorite activities was nature crafts.

"I made a necklace," he said.

Charlie wore the necklace throughout the week, proudly displaying the string of brightly colored foam beads and leather band which bore his name.

Hull Middle School student James Kilgore said he was most looking forward to fishing, but he was enjoying the whole experience.

"Well, it's a lot of fun, and it's a great way to make friends," James said. "They have plenty of activities and a really nice schedule."

Shiloh High School student Kyle Kulasiewicz, 15, said he thinks the camp improved in its second year. Camp Twin Lakes programs at Will-A-Way began in May 2009, and renovations at Will-A-Way were completed this year.

"I think it's really fun, because there are tons of activities," Kyle said. "The one thing I don't understand is why some people don't think it's fun. Overall, I think that this camp is awesome."