Summer camp keeps kids with autism on track

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Camp has just begun for the day, but the classroom at the Early Childhood Center is quiet. The campers greet their aides and take a seat on the carpet in the front of the room, waiting for instruction.

It's not what you might expect from a handful of young boys on summer vacation, but it's what they've learned to do at camp.

This is the second year for Johnston's summer camp for children with autism and anxiety disorders. For six weeks this summer, campers will learn social skills that can help them integrate with their peers.

"A lot of times children, who are on the [Autism] Spectrum, struggle with social cues," explained teacher Rob Rocchio, LICSW, camp director. "Each week I work with them clinically on a different social skill."

Last week, the group of six boys in grades two through five, learned about manners and why they are important. During the week of July 4, the first week of camp, they learned how to introduce themselves.

Students must follow three simple rules: one at a time, no put downs and respect yourself and one another.

"It's really nice to see them exercise those social skills with each other," Rocchio said.

Before their morning activity last Thursday, Dylan Murphy practiced his introductions, and shared his thoughts on camp.

"I think it's kind of awesome. It's the best place I've ever been," he said. "We do lots of fun stuff."

Murphy will attend Barnes Elementary School next year, where he will work alongside Rocchio, who is a school social worker in Johnston. Rocchio believes having a summer camp allows the district to integrate students with disabilities into traditional classrooms, which is beneficial for the student and cost-effective for the district that would otherwise have to pay an out-of-district tuition for special services.

"We've been able to use the summer camp program to ease in that transition. This year it's working more toward an inclusion model," Rocchio said.

While last year's camp included only students with autism, the opportunity was extended to those with anxiety disorders this year as well.

"It's a good mix because they're different peer models for each other," said Lori Facha, the assistant director of special education for Johnston Public Schools, who stopped into Rocchio's classroom last week.

Helping to run the classroom is teacher Erin Ferraro. Rocchio praised her and the rest of the camp staff, including aides Doreen Pezzullo, Kathy Francis and Maria Ciliberto, who he says make day-to-day operations run smoothly.

"They go way behind the hours of camp," he said.

Johnston's summer camp runs Monday through Thursday from 8:30 to 11 a.m. Before diving into an activity, students review past activities, go over their schedule for the day, and share how they're feeling.

Activities revolve around a new weekly theme, ranging from creepy crawlers and camping to a luau and a circus theme. During camping week, a large tent was set up in the classroom, where students shared ghost stories and created fake campfires in arts and crafts. Academics are not on the schedule, and socialization is the focus instead.

"All of the non-competitive, artistic activities are good for the whole socialization process," Rocchio said.

Camp activities also incorporate technology, free time and support services like speech therapy, physical education and occupational therapy.

Each student's behavior is monitored with a colored circle on the board at the front of the class. Green means the behavior is positive, yellow is a warning and red means something has to change.

"Red light is we need to take a break with an adult so we can get back on track," Rocchio said. "We have this visual behavior system to help them monitor their behavior and make good choices. They are responsible for their behavior."

By teaching social skills and having the students do role-playing activities, they are able to keep bad behaviors in check.

David Conti, for example, was at camp last year and struggled to deal with his anger. When something didn't go his way, he would become loud and overly excited, often yelling out negative self-statements in front of his classmates.

During physical education one day, Conti was confronted with a frustrating situation. Instead of acting out, he asked Rocchio to talk about it.

"If it was last year, I would scream. Sometimes I don't think," Conti said.

Now, he recognizes the importance of thinking first.

"I'm a good listener," he said.

Watching Conti talk about his progress is gratifying for Rocchio, who worked with him last summer, through the school year and again this summer.

"Camp last summer gave him a social foundation to bring into his classroom. He took off with those skills," he said. "David has done great. To see that growth and to hear him acknowledge his growth is personally and professionally so rewarding."

The Johnston summer camp is offered free to families, and will run through Aug. 11, when the class will give a formal presentation on what they learned, share photographs, and even do a martial arts performance thanks to the help of the Mastery Martial Arts studio.

Parents will get to see what their child has been learning, but are kept in the loop through the summer with a weekly newsletter courtesy of the teachers and aides, and Rocchio often follows up with phone calls. Engaging them in the process, he said, is crucial.

"They're part of the team; they're part of the solution," he said. "It's letting them know they don't have to go through this alone."

Rocchio is thrilled with the progress of the campers so far this summer, but his hopes for the program grow each year.

"My goal is really to extend this kind of programming to the secondary level so it can follow them as they get older. That would be great," he said.

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