With kindergarten fast approaching in fall, I started to panic. Other than short 1-hour gym and music classes, Beth hasn’t been in a school-like setting in a long time (the last time was at age 3-4 in a preschool). My friends were posting about summer activities and camps on their Facebook feeds, which got me thinking about camps to get Beth ready for school. Three minutes down the street there is a summer camp and they boasted about outdoor time and their swimming program, which Beth would love. So on impulse I called.
Making the Call
The conversation went something like this:
Me: Hi. My name is Tammy. I have a daughter who is 6 and I think she would love your summer camp. But she has autism and would need support while she is there.
Owner: We have other kids with aids and therapists who come in for sessions. She is more than welcome, but we only have openings in the 3-4 year old group.
Me: Actually, that is about where she is socially, so maybe that is a good place for her. (I am thinking, there are openings left? Now I have to think of a way to convince her it is okay for me to come with Beth. I really should have thought through the details.)
Me: Um, you actually know us. We started out in your school when she was 2 and you helped identify her autism. Then we took her out of your school after a brief time there due to her anxieties and the need to do intensive therapy at home. Do you remember Beth?
Owner: Yes! How are you guys?
Me: Well, it has been a long road. She didn’t respond very well to the intensive therapy techniques, so we did private therapies and I ended up doing a lot of direct teaching myself.
Owner: Yeah, sometimes it takes a long time to find the right approaches.
Me: Because I work with her a lot myself, we have a unique situation and I am essentially Beth’s aid. I aid her at Little Gym and a Milestones in Music Class and it is going very well. Would you mind if I act as her aid? (Way to work in the precedent.)
Owner: Well….we have never done that before, having a parent act as and aid, but we can certainly give it a try. (What? Really? She actually said yes?)
Me: Okay, yeah, let’s just try it. She went to another preschool at 3-4 with an aid and was not disruptive with support, so I don’t think it will be an issue. But if for whatever reason it is not working out, just let me know and I we will leave with no hard feelings.
So that is how we got into camp with me as her aid.
I am happy that report that the place that once was a source of great pain to me (I wrote about that here: http://wp.me/p2OomI-1gp) is now a source of happiness. No longer will drive by the school/camp and feel like I am going to cry. But there were a few times in the beginning where I thought I made a terrible mistake.
Beth was quite stressed in the first couple of weeks of camp and it took me awhile to figure out how best to aid her. It didn’t help that we were in her old classroom, which was a source of stress by association for her. I know she remembered the class. She said at one point, “sit on the star!” through her whining. I was in shock. She used to be the star shape back when she was 2, but she was assigned a different shape for camp. The shape tells each kid where to sit, what towel to dry hands with, what cubby to sit on when waiting to go outside, what place mat to use, etc. She remembered her shape and her teacher telling her to sit on her shape 4 years later. I think I said to her, “You are sad now, but it will get better.” To myself I was I was wondering if Beth would make it through her anxiety to enjoy the camp.
Small Steps to Success
Fortunately, she pushed through the stress, and she enjoyed camp after a couple of weeks. Her favorite parts of camp were play yard time (which was a huge field with swings, natural and man-made play equipment, and live animals behind the fence bordering the play yard), swimming, play-doh, and painting (not surprising-all sensory!). In the classroom she struggled with the free play period the most, because she didn’t understand what to do or where to be. I eventually figured out she was most comfortable sitting in a chair at a table rather than the floor (I guess the chair grounded her, made her feel safe), and she needed to be kept busy and given lots of rewards to participate. As time went on she expanded her participation in the classroom in small, but significant ways. For example, she learned to do floor puzzles and food kits (the ones that go together like a puzzle) with the other kids, and she will happily play with those toys at home with me now. I think it was invaluable for her and for me see how other kids play at the 3-4 year old level. I am not sure who learned more, me or Beth!
Cruicial Sensory Discoveries
While at camp, we experimented with a lot of fidgets, oral rewards, scented things, etc. The best discoveries were mint chewing gum, scented fidgets/stickers, and icy seltzer water breaks. The scented bean bags and stickers (shown below) were popular not just with Beth. The whole class was after me for them! How many times did I hear, “Can I smell? Can I have one?” Gum paid a crucial role, allowing her play with play-doh instead of eat it and helping her sit through a 1-hour (!) magic show.
Small Victories with Socialization
I remember someone saying to me that a good aid will make friends with the other kids, because then the other kids will be drawn to the aid and the aid can steer the kids to interact with the special needs child. So I was silly, fun, listened to everything they said, and gave them my full attention when they talked to me. Then I looked for opportunities to have them interact in small ways with Beth. Each small, but important, interaction victory was key at first (I even bribed her just to stand next to the kids while watching a horse roll in the dirt, that is how small it was at first…just stand and look at something with the other kids and you get mints!).
Eventually I started getting creative (well, as creative as an engineer in a preschool camp can be). For example, Beth liked to climb up on a play structure to look at the trees. I started calling the structure “The Mountain” and told Beth to roar like a lion (something she likes to do). The other kids came along and I gave them some attention, then they asked what she was doing. I said she is playing “Lion on the Mountain” and they joined in.
A Big, Huge Victory with Socialization
In the latter half of camp, something unexpected happened. A little boy, I will call him Bobby but that is not his real name, started asking to play with Beth. It was hard to get a back and forth going, so I had them share her sensory toys, take a few simple turns, etc. At one point when Beth was struggling and I was trying to be firm with Beth, Bobby, the gentle soul he was, said, “I just want to help her!” Bobby gave her hugs, would swim over to Beth in the pool just to say “Hi” and would say, “I love you Beth” out of the blue. And for the first time ever with any school-like situation, Beth would, in her own way, talk about a kid at home. She would say, “Bobby!” while smiling and laughing. I would ask if she liked him and she would say yes. When I asked if she wanted to go to camp to see Bobby she would smile and say, “Yes!” excitedly. It was a breakthrough for her and it was so wonderful I was there to see the whole progression of how the friendship unfolded.
Final Thoughts on Camp
We went to camp for 6 weeks, 3 days a week. I am really going to miss it, maybe even more than Beth! I slipped a note to a couple of the parents in hopes that we could do a play date (If you are one of those parents and are reading this…call the number on the back of my card!).
I am still nervous about K, because camp was sensory rich and in many ways all the sensory activities helped her cope. They won’t have swimming or outside time in her morning K class (sadly, they don’t go outside much anymore for K at her school). But I did the best I could to prepare Beth by putting her in a classroom and trying to find things Beth could use to cope at K (fidgets, oral aids, etc.). There is nothing left to do but transfer the knowledge and pray and hope.