The little brown-haired girl looked shyly at the man behind the counter at the café and took a breath.
“My name is Piper,” she said. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Sure,” the man said, smiling.
“What’s your favorite color?” Piper asked somewhat nervously, glancing down at the map in her hand.
“Blue,” said the man. “Would you like a gold coin for your scavenger hunt?”
Piper took the coin and smiled. This interaction, while routine for many kids, was a big accomplishment for the 9-year-old, who has autism. Piper was a recent participant in Camp MIND, a summer program for children ages 6 through 12 who are diagnosed with a neurodevelopmental disorder.
The camp is broken into four one-week sessions based on age. Each session serves 12 children and gives campers a chance to meet new peers and participate in a variety of recreational activities that promote friendships and build self-confidence.
Through group games, crafts, music and dance therapy, yoga and outdoor activities, campers learn how to make new friends, give and accept compliments, use self-control, manage stress, be a good sport and work as part of a team.
“This is a safe environment where kids with autism can make friends and learn social skills while having fun,” said Erin Roseborough, a certified child life specialist and director of Camp MIND. “We want this to be recreational and social.”
Successful pilot leads to expanded camp program
Roseborough started Camp MIND last year as a one-week pilot project with co-worker Caitlin Jensen, also a child life specialist.
“I was looking for camps for my daughter Brooklyn, and couldn’t find any that were affordable and designed for kids with autism,” Roseborough said. “After the pilot, we got a great reception from parents and kids, so we expanded the program this year.”
Feedback from this year’s camp has been equally positive. Kirsten Spall, whose 10-year-old son Robert was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and attended Camp MIND, said the camp helped build his confidence.
“It’s important for Robert to connect with others who are similar to him, and it’s hard to do this at school,” Spall said. “This gives him a chance to make friends and feel accepted and successful at the end of the day. It’s also important for parents to feel successful, and know that someone can work with their child. This has been a good opportunity for us.”
Campers also enjoy the activities.
"It’s fun being around kids like me,” said 8-year-old Calder Gates. “No one is mean to me. I also like the obstacle course.”
Camp connects kids as well as their parents
Marjorie Solomon, professor in the UC Davis Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and a member of the MIND Institute faculty, stressed the importance of social skills training for children with neurodevelopmental disorders.
“When you’re around other kids who are like you and you can have a friend, it’s transformational,” she said. “The interactions at camp are facilitated by caring, trained adults. The kids learn how to interact with lots of different people. It teaches them how to be in larger social settings, like school.”
The camp also gives parents an opportunity to form a social network and share resources.
“Several of the parents have exchanged contact information and are making plans to get the kids together for playdates after camp,” Jensen said. “We’re also looking into starting a yoga night for the families, to help ease the transition of camp ending.”
For more information about Camp MIND, visit http://ucdmc.ucdavis.edu/mindinstitute/events/index.html.