Being let loose on a playground might sound like nirvana to many kids. But for children on the autism spectrum, it can be maddening.
At Camp Lakey Gap in Black Mountain, which serves people on all levels of the spectrum, fun is structured.
“If you put kids with autism on a playground and tell them to play, they may not know what to do,” said Anne McGuire, director of community outreach and development. “We take them to the playground and say: ‘First, we’re going to swing. Then, we’re going to go down the slide.’ Knowing what to expect makes them feel safe.”
Since 2009, the Observer Summer Camp Fund has raised over $1.5 million and sent more than 3,000 children from the area to day and sleepaway camps. This summer, more than 500 kids will attend 33 camps on Observer scholarships. Two of them are headed to Lakey Gap.
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One of those is 8-year-old Brayden Baker-Rooks of Matthews. This marks Brayden’s third summer at Lakey Gap.
And what does he loves most about the camp? Easy: “Pool, pool, pool, pool, pool.”
Lakey Gap is held at Christmount, a retreat owned by the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), where both Brayden’s parents are ministers. “Christmount is a very special place for our family,” Bruce Baker-Rooks, Brayden’s dad, said. “For Brayden, Lakey Gap is a second home.”
The camp uses the TEACCH (Treatment and Education of Autistic and Communication-related handicapped Children) program. Campers likely know it from school, so they’re made to feel at home right away.
Two weeks are set aside for children with high-functioning autism. During the other weeks, many campers may be non-verbal. “They can still express joy, though,” said Jon Blalock, the camp’s director.
Lakey Gap offers the experiences common to overnight camps but adapts them to a different thinking style. “We want this to feel like summer camp,” Blalock said.
And it does.
Besides swimming, Brayden loves arts and crafts, swinging on the swing set, hiking and making friends. “The fact that he has one-on-one attention all week is wonderful,” Baker-Rooks said.
Counselors have to be well-trained – and extraordinarily patient. The camp holds a full week of training to prepare them. During the parent panel, parents of children on the autism spectrum “give counselors an idea of who they’re serving,” Blalock said.
“This year, after one parent spoke, a counselor raised his hand and said, ‘I was a peer mentor for your son in middle school. He’s why I’m here,’ ” Blalock said.
Summer camp is about relationships, Blalock said: “Games are just a means to an end. The goal is to make friends. Every person has the capability for connection.”