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A Camp That Changes Lives

Story by
Nancy Joseph
September 2017Perspectives Newsletter

A talent show at APEX Summer Camp begins with a nine-year-old reciting the 101 digits of Pi. Halfway through, his bunkmates clap with each digit recited. They are equally supportive of the next performer, who does cartwheels and flips to recorded music.

The talent show may be a traditional summer camp experience, but APEX is not your average summer camp. Offered through the UW Autism Center, the five-week day camp is also a summer treatment program for children ages 6-12 with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The camp is supported in part by donors like Rebecca Ebsworth, who also volunteers as the camp nurse, and the company Harkla. 

Campers and a counselor cheer as they prepare for a soccer game.

APEX campers and a counselor cheer as they prepare for a soccer game. Media credit: Gavin Sisk

“Children with autism and ADHD struggle socially, though it can be for very different reasons,” says camp director Ben Aaronson. “Many of our campers do fine with academics but spend a lot of time alone on the playground. They might be okay talking with adults or one-on-one with another kid, but they really struggle with group dynamics. Our program focuses a lot on group activities like playground games and sports. The goal is for the kids to build experience and confidence in group settings.”

On any given day, APEX’s nearly 100 campers — divided into “bunks” of 10-12 — can be found playing dodgeball, soccer, board games, or playground games as they would at any camp. But at APEX, each activity begins with campers seated in a circle to go over expectations and rules, and ends with them seated again to discuss successes and challenges. “Most of the information is identical and presented in the same order every time,” says Aaronson. “The kids thrive on consistency, knowing what’s going to happen and what the expectations are.”

Campers check out prizes at the "point store," which they purchase with earned behavior points.

Campers check out prizes at APEX Summer Camp's "point store." At the end of each day, they can cash in earned behavior points for prizes. Media credit: Gavin Sisk

The camper-to-counselor ratio at APEX is 3 to 1. During group activities, counselors subtly address disruptive behaviors and encourage positive ones. One counselor records behaviors on a point system so that each camper’s progress is tracked over time. The point system also provides incentives for positive behavior, since campers can purchase prizes at the end of each day with points earned.

Learning the point system and understanding the behavioral challenges of ASD and ADHD is critical for APEX counselors, many of whom are undergraduate or graduate students. Each summer, they spend two weeks in training prior to the campers’ arrival. During that time, guest speakers share their expertise on key topics in ASD and ADHD, and the counselors practice teaching social skills, promoting positive behaviors, and addressing disruptive behaviors to ensure that their responses will be second nature when the campers arrive.

“The pre-camp training is definitely helpful,” says Anna Parks, a UW undergraduate majoring in psychology, who has spent two summers as an APEX counselor. “All of the aspects of the program can be overwhelming at first. It can be a challenge, especially when being faced with multiple challenging behaviors at once. The two weeks of training made it so I started the first day of camp very prepared.”

This camp is kind of like the rest of the world, but it’s got this 90% predictability rate.

Despite the heavy focus on behavior, the real goal of APEX is to help campers develop their social skills. Addressing behaviors is what allows that to happen. “If campers are up on the playfield and the counselors are keeping disruptive behaviors in check, then these kids have an opportunity to interact meaningfully, whether it’s during a kickball game or a playground game,” says Aaronson. “You can’t force those interactions — they have to happen naturally — but a lot of what we do is setting students up to have those real opportunities.”

Two campers play tic-tac-toe during a "camper's choice" activity.

Two campers play tic-tac-toe during a "camper's choice" activity. Media credit: Gavin Sisk

For campers, all the behind-the-scenes work is invisible. The camp simply feels like fun. And it feels safe, largely due to the predictability built into every camp activity.

“The variability is so much of what makes the social world overwhelming for some of the kids we serve,” says Aaronson. “This camp is kind of like the rest of the world, but it’s got this 90% predictability rate. There is some variability, but no matter which counselor you have, you’re going to get the same responses to behavior. The schedule is going to be almost identical every day, which is just better for their learning. At the same time, we don’t shy away from challenging the kids. Dodgeball in the gym is not quiet! It’s this constant balance between providing enough support for a child to be successful and stepping back as much as we can to give them an opportunity to develop confidence and independence.”

Many campers return each year, sometimes joined by siblings who do not have ASD or ADHD. The kids love the camp experience, but it is perhaps their parents who most appreciate the changes that can occur in five short weeks.

“It’s hard for me to explain the kind of emotion that floods me when I watch my child — who has never before had the experience of a team — joining in a game with confidence,” one parent wrote about her son after camp. “I feel a deep sense of gratitude to the many people who keep the program going.  …[My son] not only participates in PE at school now, but he does so without his aide. This program has been life-changing!”

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For more about APEX Summer Camp or to support ths program, visit apexsummercamp.org or contact Ben Aaronson at 206-221-CAMP or apex@uw.edu