David Conti has come a long way in two years – just ask him.
“I can still remember my first year here at camp. I didn't act as good as I did now, but it was a good time,” he said.
Conti was speaking to an audience of parents, friends and Johnston educators at an end of summer presentation for the district’s camp for children with autism. This was his second year at camp, and Camp Director Robert Rocchio said the progress he saw was not limited to Conti.
“The growth is so touching and so rewarding,” he said. “It's amazing to see these kids learn new things about themselves.”
The summer camp, now in its second year, focuses on non-competitive, artistic activities that allow students with autism to express themselves and learn how to appropriately interact with their peers.
Rocchio walked parents through a typical day at camp, showing off their visual schedule that keeps the children on task, and the color-coded behavior chart that encourages them to keep up the good work or change their attitude, if need be.
“That's been the primary focus of this program, helping kids develop those necessary social skills,” Rocchio said.
Through the use of social stories, he put the students through typical day-to-day situations, such as introducing themselves. When Rocchio, who is a licensed social worker for Johnston Public Schools, noticed a student struggling, he would work one-on-one with them to improve their behavior.
“This year in particular, I worked really hard at working with individual students and finding out what their weaknesses are,” he said.
Each day at camp, students also had some time to themselves. During free time, they could play on the computer or with a puzzle or interact with one another. Over the six weeks, Rocchio saw more of the students choosing to play with one another than work by themselves.
“Over the six weeks, it was very interesting to see them gravitate toward each other,” he said.
While each week had a different theme, a favorite activity among the six elementary-level students was karate. Anthony Pezzillo, a third degree black belt, is the chief instructor at Mastery Martial Arts, which has academies in Centerdale, Cranston, North Smithfield, Smithfield, Warwick and Cumberland. He visited the camp regularly to not only teach martial arts techniques but also instill a sense of respect and discipline in the students.
“We learn how to set and reach goals for ourselves. Once we set a new goal and we reach it, we don't give up,” Pezzillo said.
As he led the class in a martial arts demonstration, he had them repeat commands, call him sir and say encouraging phrases like “Yes I can.” During his lessons, and last week, he had the students practice being still and not talking, which can be a challenge for children with autism. He also built their confidence, instructing them to make good eye contact and keep their chins up at all times.
Pezzillo then pretended to “be a bad habit” and lunged at the students one by one. They put their hands up to stop him in his tracks, as he listed bad habits like not listening to your parents, playing too many video games and not cleaning your room.
“Good habits take thousands of times to develop,” Pezzillo said.
At the end of the demonstration, the students received their white belts and Pezzillo invited them to take a trial class at the Mastery studio.
The students received certificates of completion for the summer camp as well, though Rocchio hopes the lessons they learned over the six weeks will continue to resonate as school starts up next Wednesday, Aug. 31.
“When they go back to school in the fall they'll bring a lot of these skills with them, and I'll be able to work with the teachers in the fall on the things we picked up in camp,” he said.
And even though school is coming up fast, Conti said he’s already looking forward to getting back to camp next summer.
“I would like to thank Mr. Rocchio for starting the camp,” he said. “It's been a great few weeks in camp, and camp has been really good.”