“Yes, I’ve been expecting your call.”
“It’s been a great week so far. Your child went kayaking on Monday, had a sleepover with his cabin mates in our tree houses, and performed a skit with his counsellor on skit night. He’s having a great time.”
“You’re talking about my kid!? Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure.”
“Wow! I can’t believe it.”
Parents can be apprehensive about leaving their children in the hands of volunteer camp counsellors for a whole week. Now imagine leaving a child who has a disability. How will he participate in activities? Will the counsellors know what to do? What if he’s scared and doesn’t know who to talk to? Do they know he’s afraid of heights?
As director of Beyond Boundaries, it’s my job to reassure parents their children are safe and having the most memorable week of their whole summer. As parents drop off children, their faces are usually full of fear. The first year the program was in place, I was scared too – excited about the amazing possibilities, but scared nonetheless. Three years later, Beyond Boundaries is growing faster and stronger than ever expected.
Reaching out to kids with special needs
In 2010, the Fraser Valley Autism Society gave Stillwood Camp and Conference Centre, Lindell Beach, B.C., its support to create Beyond Boundaries, a program designed to integrate children with autism into camp.
Our goal is to ensure these children have the best week of their summer: building relationships, having fun, and learning about Jesus. (Some of the kids who come to Stillwood through Beyond Boundaries are from Christian families, but many of the campers are introduced to Christ for the very first time.)
A child who lives with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) may look like a typical kid, but his or her behaviour can be somewhat perplexing. Autism is a complex disorder evidenced by sensory processing difficulties, speech/language or other communication delays and impairments, and social interaction challenges. Each person with autism is different, and requires unique assistance to successfully adapt to the world around them.
“Every day, individuals with autism are showing us they can overcome, compensate for, and otherwise manage many of autism’s most challenging aspects,” writes Ellen Notbohm in Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew. “Equipping those around our children with simple understanding of autism’s most basic elements has a tremendous impact on their ability to journey toward productive, independent adulthood.”
Invisible to the child’s eye
Often, the type of support provided to children with autism in our school systems or community programs is overtly obvious to the child’s peers, which isolates the child and interferes with his or her ability to establish authentic friendships. Beyond Boundaries is an invisible program in the eyes of the “awesome” (our new word for autistic) camper.
Last summer, a discouraged parent pulled me aside and spoke of her guilt for putting her son in yet another “program” for kids with autism. “I just want him to be able to do everything all the other campers are doing. I don’t want him to be in a separate program, but I don’t know what else to do.”
I was pleased to inform her that her son would participate in camp life like everybody else. Through education and training for all counsellors and staff, Beyond Boundaries supports children with autism in the least intrusive way possible. We create an environment where support networks increase – not inhibit – the child’s opportunities to form relationships, so each camper – on the spectrum or not – is on the same playing field.
Beyond Boundaries also educates peer groups about what autism is and what autism is not. Throughout the summer, cabin groups are informed about autism so they’ll be better equipped to start a friendship with their fellow campers. Many of these kids become unofficial “bodyguards,” having their fellow campers’ best interests at heart.
Challenges remain. An obvious one is capacity. Currently, our program can hold up to eight campers with autism per week, much less than the actual demand from interested parents.
Another challenge is the need for a place for teens with autism to serve as camp staff. Stillwood welcomes many staff members who were once campers, and volunteering or working at camp is a fantastic way to serve Christ by investing into the lives of others. Some of last year’s Beyond Boundaries participants are now too old to return as campers. Unfortunately, there’s no program in place to support these youth who want to be part of Stillwood’s ongoing camp staff. So, we recognize the potential and demand for creating another program.
Beyond Boundaries has been blessed with the opportunity to show the world that children with autism can exceed the limitations others have imposed on them. Children are seeing their peers in a whole new light. Without the restrictions of classroom walls or an adult special needs helper, children can discover they’re not so different from each other.
It’s wonderful for children with autism to be in an environment with their peers – playing, praising Jesus, learning about the Bible, and making new friends. When parents see this happening, their apprehensions melt away, and camp becomes the best week of the summer for everyone
–Laura Peters works as a behavioural interventionist in Moose Jaw, Sask., and recently graduated from the University of Victoria with a degree in child and youth care. She will be returning to Stillwood Camp this summer to continue directing Beyond Boundaries.