For adolescents with autism spectrum disorders, a new summer camp at Mississippi State combines fun activities with exercises designed to help participants overcome common communication and socialization effects.
Camp Jigsaw, now in its second year and named after the puzzle-piece symbol associated with autism awareness, involves boys ages 12-19. It is a week crammed with experiences designed to help them make eye contact during conversations and maintain a positive tone of voice, among other concepts.
The experience also enables university graduate students serving as staff members while studying emotional and behavioral disorders to earn credit toward their internship requirement.
Sandy Devlin, a professor of curriculum, instruction and special education, oversees the camp and teaches the internship course. Throughout her special education career, the autism spectrum has been of special interest, the 22-year MSU faculty veteran said.
With Mississippi reportedly experiencing a staggering 369 percent rise over the past decade in children diagnosed with autism, more families than ever are in need of help, Devlin emphasized.
"This is all about social skills training," she said. "Eye contact, sharing ideas in conversation, being pleasant in tone of voice; those are types of things that are really hard within the autism spectrum."
Devlin said Camp Jigsaw provides help along two primary tracks. First, there are the measurable improvements in social skills and self-determination skills the campers achieve during the short but intense period. Secondly, the support and friendships developed during the week give families an extra resource, including an online social network that Devlin monitors specifically for the program.
After starting each day with an hour of social skills and self-determination training, the youngsters continue daily schedules with such activities as swimming, rock-wall climbing, art, and snack time. Field trips to a local bowling alley and movie theater keep them on an entertaining, but hurried, schedule.
While the activities may seem leisurely on the surface, objectives in social skills training are tied to every part of the itinerary, Devlin said.
The recently concluded camp, which included both autistic adolescents and non-autistic peers, was free to all. Campers who did not have autism enjoyed all the same activities, but took away a different experience--usually an increased understanding and empathy for others, Devlin said.
"They learned it's OK to be different," she continued. "Everybody has strength and a value."
Devlin said enhanced self-determination is an important objective for campers.
"We're teaching the kids how to use 'I' statements, like saying how they feel," she said. "These all are lessons that we take for granted that kids on the spectrum really must have direct instruction in."
Allyn R. Self of Madison, a camp staff member working on a master's degree in special education, said autistic campers are paired with a different non-autistic peer every day.
"One of the biggest hardships is being able to adapt to normal social concepts," Self said. "We encouraged them to practice with their partner throughout the activities because there's no better way to practice than in real-life settings."
Self and the other graduate interns provided varied instruction on social concepts, then encouraged considerable role playing to reinforce and practice the concepts. As an example, she said campers might pretend they are in a school setting and need to ask for directions or a similar "everyday" type of scenario.
Self, an MSU elementary education graduate who taught for two years before returning for graduate work, said this year's Camp Jigsaw was her first significant experience working with children with disabilities.
"It was interesting to see how they developed," Self said. "You could see growth during the week, and increased initiative and confidence toward the latter part of camp."
Self said she felt a sense of great pride when, toward the end of the week, a camper with a significant social skills challenge sat with another autistic camper and maintained nearly a 10-minute conversation without being prompted.
"It was so great to see something that may not have happened otherwise come together by the end of the week, and they could do it completely on their own," Self said, adding that the internship course reaffirmed her desire to work with children with disabilities.
"They just need someone to be there for them, help them, guide them along the way," Self said.
At the conclusion of Camp Jigsaw, Devlin said she felt confident the experience accomplished all the goals set out for campers and graduate interns.
"The data set shows lots of growth," Devlin said. "We had such an intense time; we were able to see growth and, at the end of the week, parents were able to see growth."
"It's a huge learning experience for everybody involved," she said.
Devlin, who launched Camp Jigsaw in 2010 as a pilot program, puts much of her own resources into the program, including having the 15 campers stay at her home for the week.
She expressed hope that, by the time next year's camp gets under way, funding sources will be found to cover the cost of campus housing. This could be an especially important educational experience and preparation for campers in the high-functioning autism spectrum who may attend college in the future.
Devlin said the camp was able to double what it achieved in 2010 and, with assistance, should continue to grow over successive years.
"I think that every child should have the opportunity to go to camp," she said.