STARKVILLE, Miss.--Youth who have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders face challenges every day, from communicating basic feelings to making friends. Camp Jigsaw at Mississippi State University helps participants improve these skills while enjoying a traditional camp experience.
Now in its fourth year, Camp Jigsaw is named after the puzzle-piece symbol associated with autism awareness. More than 20 boys from ages 12 to 21 are participating this week [June 24-28]. They are learning skills such as making eye contact and maintaining a positive tone of voice during conversations. The camp includes youth who do not have autism spectrum disorders also to encourage peer interaction.
Sandy Devlin, an MSU professor of curriculum, instruction and special education, developed the camp. Devlin's advanced graduate students who have career goals of working with children with emotional and behavioral disorders carry out the annual planning and coordination, as well as serve as camp staff members.
Each day begins with social skills training during a breakfast session. Devlin, a 30-year veteran educator, has focused on autism throughout her career. She said it is as rewarding to see the campers make progress in their life skills as it is to see her graduate students develop as educators.
"This is where the cream rises to the top," Devlin said of her students stepping up to handle autistic youth with special care.
"They're going to make me proud, and they're going to make Mississippi State proud. They're going to be doing one of the most important jobs that there is," she said.
Jackson Moore is a senior special education major from Oxford, and one of only a few undergraduate students participating as a camp counselor. He said this week has shown him that patience is an essential character trait for those who work with special needs students.
Special education is a field in which he has a calling, he said.
"Just seeing the kids and what they go through every day is a really humbling experience, and it reinforces why I'm in special education," Moore said.
He explained that theory comes into play, but teachers must really get to know their students in order to best help them learn.
"You've got to be very caring and thoughtful of your students," Moore said.
Fellow camp counselor Eric Martin, a master's student in secondary education from Mobile, Ala., said he has learned not to have any preconceived notions of what individuals with autism spectrum disorders can or cannot do. The campers routinely surprise their leaders with hidden talents and unique skills.
"All children can learn. You've got to help them be successful and build that confidence," he said.
Alex Orsak, an MSU senior communication major who is minoring in special education, also is working under Devlin as a camp leader. Orsak has a unique ability to relate to the challenges campers face because he also has Asperger's syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder. As an MSU student, Orsak co-founded Jigsaw MSU, a campus organization aimed at raising autism awareness and understanding.
"A lot of my challenges were and are the challenges they face today," he said.
Orsak explained that he had difficulty with speech and reciprocity during conversations. He also had difficulty making friends.
It is important for autistic students to have role models who will help teach them how to engage in proper conversations, he said, adding that the encouragement often helps them open up.
Devlin said the motto for the week is "Show me what you can do." The challenge works wonders for the campers, several of whom are away from parents for the first time.
She said that a week packed full of summer activities such as climbing the rock wall at the university's Sanderson Center, going to a local bowling alley and purchasing treats from a snow-cone stand, also offers practical opportunities for campers to practice life skills like self-determination statements.
"Self-determination is the ability to take care of yourself in situations. You use words to voice what you like or don't like, what you need or want, instead of relying on others to do that for you," Devlin explained.
She said one tired camper asked her to open his water bottle for him. Her response of "show me what you can do" reinforced a greater level of personal independence. She said campers grow during the week at Jigsaw and success is in the details of every-day life.
Positive reinforcement is at the heart of the program. Devlin said she and other camp leaders constantly give positive reinforcement for every new skill they see campers achieve.
"We just keep seeing leaps and bounds," she said.
For more information about Mississippi State University, see www.msstate.edu.