Today marked the end of Camp Burkhart, a camp formed for children with Autism. I am currently enrolled in an Exercise Sport Sciences class called Physical Education for Children. The instructor specializes in modified PE classes for children with special needs. One of the class activities was taking part in this camp for this week.
Before going into this camp I was somewhat familiar with Autism, but never really have worked hands on with children who have it. As I'm writing this I'm thinking about the politically correct way to "say" different phrases pertaining to this subject. I know that it is not right to say "Autistic child". I've learned over the past few years that you are not supposed to put the label in front of the child. So, the right way to phrase it would be "child with Autism." They are a child first and Autism should not be their first identifier. Anyway, back to the main point of this thought - before Camp Burkhart I was familiar with Autism but hadn't really worked directly with a child who has it.
On Monday each of us was assigned to a specific child. There were about 30 campers enrolled and they needed us shadowing the kids. Some of them were runners and out of their routine. They wanted their moms or caregivers and would head straight toward the doors to get away. Our jobs were to bond with the kids and become a buddy to them. We were supposed to make them feel comfortable and have them try to engage in the activities that were happening.
The little girl I was assigned to was named Knatalye. (Natalie) It took me about three days to be able to spell her name right. She was 6 years old and completely non-verbal. She could function and walk, but just didn't have a lot of cognitive abilities. On Monday when I got there another worker was working with her. Knatalye was extremely upset, crying, and wanted to leave. She had a favorite blanket that she carried everywhere with her and chewed on. We got her to calm down after a few minutes. I have to admit that I was nervous at first. I've had a few experiences with children with special needs but I still couldn't help but question my abilities.
There were three stations set up that the groups would rotate to. There were three groups as well - Green, Blue, and Yellow. Knatalye and I were in the green group. The stations were arts & crafts, social skills, and physical education. We went to the social skills table where they had us all playing board games and learning about how to treat others. (Part of Autism is that the person really doesn't understand how to act in public and doesn't know what's right and wrong pertaining to how to treat people.) Knatalye really didn't play much and we sat there and watched as the other kids participated.
One thing that is really mind boggling about Autism is how big the spectrum is for it. There are some kids you would never have guessed had it. There was one child, Bryndon, who was fully functional and very verbal. He was great at board games and sports. He seemed very sincere and kind hearted. Then there were kids like Knatalye who were on the other end of the spectrum. There was one boy who was around 14 years old who would not sit still and do anything. They had to have three workers shadow him because he went straight for the doors to wander off. He even had to wear a tracking device on his ankle. If something didn't go his way he would cry out. He was also enamored by people who had dark hair. Anyone with blonde hair he steered clear of. His mother has dark hair so that's why we think he loved everyone who had it. There was another boy who was around the same age who did not like to be touched at all and had to wear his name tag on his back. He didn't want anything on his shirt. I was just shocked by how Autism can go from one extreme to the other, even with kids in the middle. It's such a complex thing that we still don't know much about.
By about 11:00 AM Knatalye was very tired and she laid down with the group and fell asleep. It was time for music after that and she slept through it. The camp ended at 12:00 each day. On Tuesday it was pretty much the same story. She would sit back and observe and not really take part in it. She also fell asleep around 11:00 on this day. On Wednesday when we went to the PE section, it was basketball day, and that seemed to really spark an interest with her. We both sat on the floor and took turns bouncing a ball to each other. She seemed to really enjoy it and would clap at the other kids who were running around the gym. When we went to the social skills session she spotted a Spongebob Operation game and laughed out loud. I learned that she loved Spongebob and we spent the next thirty minutes looking at the cover of the board game and she had me point out the characters and tell them to her.
Today, as stated, was our last day of the camp. When I arrived to take over Knatalye from the early person, she informed me that she had pretty much slept the whole morning. Knatalye sat in my lap and was happy to see me. The green group then rotated to the gym where we sat and bounced a ball together. She got tired of it and I took her back to the main area where she wanted to play with the Spongebob cover again. For the next 45 minutes we sat and did that, and it got to the point where she could point out Spongebob when I asked her to.
I'm thankful for the experience I had taking part in this camp. Even though it was something required for a class, I'm glad that it happened. It really melts my heart to see kiddo's dealing with all of this. I also want to give their parents a hug and help them out if I could. It takes a very patient person to work with them and I'm glad kids in this area have a place like the Burkhart Center to go to to be able to socialize and get out of the house.
I hope that the research is getting better for Autism. It is so complex and seems inconsistent since the spectrum seems to go from one extreme to the other. The diagnosis of Autism is also on the rise. Maybe with more Autism awareness people will soon begin to understand it and things can start looking up for those who deal with it first hand - whether it be the children who have it or the family members who have someone close to them who have it.