Teens and Technology

I just finished reading two articles about the impact of smartphones on our emotional wellbeing and our intelligence. Neither article was uplifting. The bottom line is that our constant use of our phones has caused us to feel more depressed, to sleep less, to interact with others less and to be more distracted. All of these factors are even more intense for teens who are using phones these days as a way to interact with peers.

An article in the Atlantic (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/) highlights how much things have changed for teens since most parents were going through middle school and high school. The author reminds those of us who are GenXers of an adolescence marked by events like rushing to get our drivers licenses, an eagerness to have time with friends away from parents and dating. Teens now are much more likely to spend time alone in their rooms connecting with peers using social media. They use Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. None of this is inherently bad – in fact, teens these days feel lucky that they don’t have to leave home to be with friends. The problem is that, although they are connected to peers, the author notes that teens report feeling “alone and distressed”. Teens report that they struggle to interact in person after being so used to screen interactions.

Most notable to me was the author’s findings that teens feel MORE left out these days. It’s obvious when a teen is not invited to a party when everyone on social media is posting photos of parties or gatherings from which they have been excluded. Girls, in particular, are masterful cyberbullies and it seems that teens feel more at liberty to be unkind when they don’t have to look their victim in the eyes. For young adults who are struggling socially, for those who have trouble navigating the complicated social world, who are feeling left out and different, social media is even more troublesome.

The author suggests that, although very difficult, parents should work hard to limit time teens spend on social media. (The other article I read in the WSJ – https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-smartphones-hijack-our-minds-1507307811, also suggests that even having a phone NEAR us decreases our ability to focus.) The more we can encourage young adults to spend time face-to-face with one another, participating in activities that DON’T involve screens, the more likely they will be to feel less depressed, to sleep better and to feel less alone. Camp seems like a great opportunity to practice this. Taking a break for a few weeks from screens can literally be life-changing.


Holidays – Autism Spectrum

Is It Really “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year?”

Eric and I took our girls to see the “holiday spectacular” at the Comcast Center here in Philadelphia. It’s a really neat film that they project onto an enormous LED screen. The 15-minute show ends with a sing-a-long of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”. As we were walking away, Eric turned to me and asked, “Is it”? For many families, the holidays are not easy. In fact, they are the most STRESSFUL times of the year! Holidays can sometimes mean arguments with family members who are impatient or “stuck” in traditions that don’t work for every person in the family. It can mean sitting and waiting in airports or train stations and experiencing what even the most patient and “zen” person finds unbearable – changes in plans and being out of control. Sitting at long meals where conversations may be boring to some or insulting to others. Many of us experience these struggles but for families that include individuals on the Autism Spectrum or who struggle socially or who have NLD, these are even more difficult.

While we hope your holidays are filled with lots of yummy food, quiet and relaxing time with family and friends and reflection of the many gifts in your life, we know that may not always be possible. Here are some suggestions for how to increase the likelihood that everyone is set up for more success:

• Preview any schedule changes in advance (at least a few days) and give the members of your family a printed schedule/itinerary….with the warning that sometimes things like traffic or weather force us to change plans.

• Try to stick to your normal routine as much as possible leading up to the holiday. For example, even when school is closed for a few days or weeks, try to keep wake-up, bed-time, and meal-times as close to schedule as possible.

• Maintain normal school-week expectations when possible as well. (e.g.: limiting screen time, household responsibilities….etc.)

• Make sure your child will find something familiar to eat at the holiday meal so that he knows he is valued and won’t be hungry. (This may mean bringing along a container of his favorite food.)

• Bring along a favorite game so that your child can invite other family members/friends to join in activity she feels confident playing.

• Bring along an activity your child can do in solitude in case he needs some down time or just wants some time away from the larger crowd.

• Take some deep breaths, listen to music – do whatever makes you feel calm and at your best and try to be ok when things don’t turn out as planned….they never do!

Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!
-Debbie


Asperger’s and Bullying: Summer Camp Can Help!

A mother of a Camp Akeela camper recently sent us the link to a New York Times article about school bullying: “School Bullies Prey on Children with Austism”. The author explains how kids on the spectrum, and other quirky children – those who learn differently or have unusual mannerisms or who don’t share interests with most of their classmates – are much more vulnerable to teasing and bullying at school. Of course, as directors of a camp for kids with Aspergers and NLD, this wasn’t news to us. Many of our Akeela campers feel that school represents a social world that can be fast-paced, cruel and unforgiving. They tell us that lunch and recess (and often gym class) are the hardest times of day. During class, although they may get funny looks for shouting out the right answers or not wearing the most up-to-date fashions, at least a teacher is there to intercede. In the cafeteria, they’re expected to navigate social situations on their own. For our campers, this can be extremely difficult. Where should they sit? Who can they talk to? What should they talk about?

At our final campfire on the last night of the camp session, we take some time to reflect upon the time we’ve spent together as a community. We talk about all of the campers’ wonderful accomplishments: becoming more independent, leaving home for three and a half weeks, going without video games!, cleaning their cabins every morning, making new friends, trying new activities and pushing themselves to do things out of their comfort zone. We encourage them to remember how accepted and loved they feel in that moment, the final night of camp. We tell them that we know how hard school can be at times and that not everyone they encounter will appreciate them for who they are. We tell them, “When you have a bad day, when someone is unkind, close your eyes and imagine you’re back on Miller Pond surrounded by friends who really care about you.”

As camp professionals, we believe that all children need to have experiences away from home where they feel successful, where they know that they are likable, where they are accepted for who they are. For our campers, that’s even more true. Children on the autism spectrum need to have experiences in safe environments where they can learn and grow, including learning how to fail. Those experiences give them the confidence and skills to manage the “real world”, where people can be so unkind.

– Debbie, Eric and Jaynie


Camp Arrival Day

When I was asked to be a “guest blogger” I started thinking about the start of the summer and in particular, arriving at camp. Arrival Day is a big deal. Some people find it exciting, some totally overwhelming … and I’m talking about everyone: campers, families, staff, newcomers and returners. I come from the UK, where camp isn’t nearly as much a “way of life” as it is for many in the US. When I first started my camp career many years ago, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. Yes, I’d seen movies set at camps and read all of the information that I’d been sent, but it was all a bit of a voyage into the unknown. I had my safety net though, as I knew a couple of people at that camp. Years later, when I started working at Akeela, it was a different story. This time I knew the basics of camp life but didn’t know anybody at Akeela. I’d spoken with Debbie and Eric on Skype, but that was it. Both very nerve-wracking experiences, but both very positive experiences. I was made to feel so welcome at each, and quickly came to feel like a part of the family.

Over the years, I’ve seen many different ways of people handling their emotions on Arrival Day. From those who arrive filled with energy, eager to see old friends and have new experiences, to those who experience more difficulty with their transition: the camper who refused to enter their cabin because “it smells of wood”, the boy who refused to speak for 8 days and would only communicate by scribbling notes, the girl who was so over-stimulated that she couldn’t stop talking, barely even pausing to draw breath.

The arrival that will stay with me forever though, comes from my second year as a Unit Leader at my old camp. Arrival Day was going smoothly, and eventually the time came when the buses arrived, and everyone had arrived. I was performing my duties and checking people off on my list, when I realized that one was missing. At pretty much the same moment, my walkie-talkie crackled into life and asked me to make my way to the Health Center. When I arrived I was confronted with the sight of a young man, sobbing and on the verge of hysteria. One of the nurses pulled me to one side and told me that he’d been like this for a lot of the bus ride, and so they got him off the bus at the office and brought him straight to the Health Center to try and calm him down. I sat down and talked to him for a good couple of hours. I found out that he was homesick, that this was the first time he had been so far away from home and that he thought that he had made a big mistake coming to camp for the summer. Over the two hours, he calmed down a lot, and when I eventually asked him if he felt ready to go down to the bunk and meet people he nervously agreed.

The thing is that this was not Camper Arrival Day, it was the Staff Arrival Day! Martijn was a 22 year old counselor who had come on his own from the Netherlands. Well, it took Martijn a few days to come out of his shell, but he turned out to be one of the most empathetic and engaging counselors I have ever had the privilege of working with. He came back to camp for three years and did some fantastic work with the campers that were placed in his care. We’re still in touch to this day, and he always reminds me of his inauspicious arrival and how he didn’t think he would make it that summer, and I think that’s what will stay with me.

In fact, I suppose that’s what I’m trying to say in this blog. No matter how nervous you feel about coming to camp, we’ll do our very best to help you through it and get you to have an amazing summer. Everyone that I’ve mentioned here went on to have a great time and made new friends, enjoyed their activities and did better than they thought they would with being away from home. Sometimes these things aren’t the easiest, and that’s OK – but there are always people who are there to help and make you feel better.

– Rob Glyn-Jones
Camp Akeela Head Counselor


Unplugging at Camp – A Break from the Digital

I was in the gym the other day and I noticed something incredible.  The person next to me on the stationary bike had his blackberry out checking email, the girl behind me was watching a show on her personal TV, and the receptionist was behind the front desk playing a game on her iPad.  It hit me as I glanced down at my iPod that most of us are not even able to separate from technology long enough to get a work out in.  I found myself longing for the summer where I get back to nature, put my phone away and save my eyes from days of sitting in front of a computer.

All of the buzz and national attention surrounding Richard Louv’s bestselling book “Last Child in the Woods” (http://richardlouv.com/books/last-child/) about nature deficit disorder and children has reaffirmed for us as camp professionals that the summer camp experience is an excellent way for children to put away technology and reconnect with nature. Most of the potential campers we have the pleasure to meet during the off-season tell us they are very interested in computers, video games and other forms of technology.  When we meet a new camper, we are asked without fail these important questions: “Can I bring my video games?”, “Can I have my cell phone?”, or “Do you have computers at camp”.  When we respond with the very unwelcome, “no”, many of them look absolutely horrified.  Even parents say, “There is no way my child will make it without a computer and his handheld games.” Months later when these same children are at camp, we smile when they stand beaming on the dock with a fishing pole, stand at the top of a mountain they just hiked with arms raised, or fly down the zip line with a huge grin on their faces.  Once they get to camp and are trying so many new activities and meeting new people, they are not thinking about their video games or computers anymore. Many of our campers also make new friends by bonding over their shared interest and begin discussing together which level they are currently battling on a certain game.

One of the many wonderful benefits of any summer camp is a break from the digital and our reliance on technology.  Campers get the chance to experience nature, try brand new activities they never knew they would enjoy and to just be a kid.  For our campers, this break from technology is especially important. Handheld games are most often a solitary activity and for children who have difficulty fitting in at school or interacting with their peers this can be a source of comfort, but can also be quite isolating.  At camp, campers are surrounded by their peers and have many incredible opportunities to meet new people and engage in different activities. When they do not have their video games to rely on, they are able to interact with their bunk mates and practice many of the critical social skills that are sometimes difficult for them. At camp, campers can prove to themselves that they can go 3 1/2 weeks without technology and can “rough it” in the wilderness! As camp professionals, we see this as an amazing accomplishment and we hope the take home message is that kids do not need to rely solely on video games to have fun. When our campers put down their video games, they might just make a great, new friend and discover many amazing activities in nature that can become new and important interests when they return home!

An interesting article about unplugging at camp:

http://www.americanwaymag.com/hannah-viroslav-american-camp-association-iphone-camp-champions

-Jaynie


Homesick and Happy – A Book Preview

As an avid and unapologetic reader of novels, I very rarely get excited about the publication of a non-fiction book. (Compared, for example, to the thrill I feel whenever I think about the May 8th release of John Irving’s next novel!) Yet, here I am, devoting this blog post to a parenting book coming out on May 1st.

Homesick and Happy: How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow is the newest work by Michael Thompson, author of (amongst others) Raising Cain and Best Friends, Worst Enemies – Understanding the Social Lives of Children. If you’ve read his books, or been lucky enough to hear him speak, you know that Dr. Thompson really understands child development and that he shares the results of his research with humor, compassion and warmth. In a recent issue of the American Camp Association magazine, he described his approach to writing Homesick and Happy. Rather than criticize overprotective parents, he empathizes with every parent who wants what’s best for his/her child … and makes the case for going away to sleepaway camp as a critical step in a child’s social and emotional development.

Here is Amazon’s description of the book:

In an age when it’s the rare child who walks to school on his own, the thought of sending your “little ones” off to sleep-away camp can be overwhelming—for you and for them. But parents’ first instinct—to shelter their offspring above all else—is actually depriving kids of the major developmental milestones that occur through letting them go—and watching them come back transformed.

In Homesick and Happy, renowned child psychologist Michael Thompson, PhD, shares a strong argument for, and a vital guide to, this brief loosening of ties. A great champion of summer camp, he explains how camp ushers your children into a thrilling world offering an environment that most of us at home cannot: an electronics-free zone, a multigenerational community, meaningful daily rituals like group meals and cabin clean-up, and a place where time simply slows down. In the buggy woods, icy swims, campfire sing-alongs, and daring adventures, children have emotionally significant and character-building experiences; they often grow in ways that surprise even themselves; they make lifelong memories and cherished friends. Thompson shows how children who are away from their parents can be both homesick and happy, scared and successful, anxious and exuberant. When kids go to camp—for a week, a month, or the whole summer—they can experience some of the greatest maturation of their lives, and return more independent, strong, and healthy.

At Camp Akeela, we talk to campers all the time about how it’s okay to feel both homesick (sad about missing their parents, siblings, pets, house, bed, foods, etc.) AND happy (glad to be making new friends, having new experiences, feeling confident and valued, etc.) at the same time. As Dr. Thompson seems to understand, we have very similar conversations with the campers’ parents! Every parent who sends their child into our care makes a decision to tolerate their own anxiety in exchange for the unique and life-changing benefits that camp has to offer.

— Eric


We Love What We Do!

People often ask us why we do what we do. They wonder why we’ve chosen to spend our summers with kids on the spectrum. They can’t imagine how we find the energy or the patience, … nor a full staff of young adults who want to accept the challenge with us. We can’t understand why anyone would NOT want to do it! We have the best job in the world. Do we have tough moments? Sure. Don’t we all? That’s what makes all of the other moments at camp that much more thrilling.

When we started Akeela in 2008, people wondered how a community made entirely of “quirky” kids would work. If the campers all struggle with social skills, how could we expect them to live in close quarters and get along? We knew that our campers would not only do okay, but would truly thrive if we established the right environment. Four years later, we feel pretty great about that environment. Our campers tell us that they feel more at ease at Akeela – that they don’t have to work as hard to fit in because everyone at camp really “gets” them. They can relax and be themselves and, as a result, they have an easier time making connections. For the first time in their lives, they feel as though they are in a world made for them, not one in which they constantly have to battle to be understood. For three and a half weeks, they experience true happiness … and so do we!

We’ve had the great pleasure of watching hundreds of amazing children grow up before our eyes. One such child is Aaron, whom we met in early 2008. We sat at his dining room table with him and his parents and talked about what camp might be like for him. It was clear that Aaron was both excited and nervous. He was sweet and smart and funny. But he was also a whirlwind of energy; he walked in circles around the room, eating fruit and rocking on his heels. At camp that summer, he was well-liked and a willing participant in all activities, but was quiet and often “in his own world”. He frequently paced at meals and we regularly found him on his own at the salad bar. At the end of the session, we didn’t know what, if any, impact camp had on his life.

Shortly after the summer was over, we heard from Aaron’s mom that both family and teachers were amazed at the social strides he’d made. The following summer, when Aaron got off the bus at camp, we almost didn’t recognize him. He’d grown a few inches and seemed more comfortable. He looked us in the eye and smiled when he greeted us. He seemed thrilled to be back at camp. We ran into him less at the salad bar and he was much more engaged with his peers. He left that summer talking about the great friends he’d made.

The summer of 2010 was even better and 2011 better still. Aaron had found a second home at Akeela. We feel deeply connected to Aaron and his family and feel immensely lucky to be a part of his life. He recently shared with us a letter he wrote to his camp counselors. It was the most well-written, heart-felt letters we’ve ever read. People wonder if our campers have the ability to connect with others … if they really care about each other. As we read Aaron’s letter, we were overwhelmed with his ability to articulate his admiration, respect and gratitude for these young men with whom he lived for a few weeks.

Knowing that we played even the slightest role in Aaron’s growth and development as a person brings us great pride and fulfillment. Aaron is one of many children who have helped us grow. We owe them all a letter of appreciation for allowing us to call this our job. Maybe Aaron will help us write that letter.

— Debbie and Eric


Asperger's and Romance

Many of you probably saw this article on the front page of last Monday’s New York Times. It’s great to see any story about Asperger’s getting such prominent real estate in “The Gray Lady”. This one in particular brings attention to a important topic: young adults with Asperger’s (or NLD or any others on the “high-functioning” end of the autism spectrum) navigating romantic relationships.

So much of what we do at Camp Akeela is to help our campers develop and practice appropriate social skills. For many of our kids, Akeela is the one place in their lives where they feel truly accepted by their peers, which allows them to form uniquely meaningful friendships and connections to others. When we first started the camp in 2008, our oldest campers were 16 years old – completing 9th grade. The following summer, we had so much demand for teenagers that we expanded the program to include boys and girls finishing 10th grade. We’ve found that camp has taken on even more significance in the lives of our campers as they move through adolescence and the world gets even more complicated socially.

It quickly became evident to us that we could do even more to help prepare these amazing kids for adulthood. Towards that end, we started a new program last summer, called Beyond Akeela. It’s for boys and girls finishing 11th and 12th grades and is essentially a hybrid of a traditional camp CIT program and a life-skills training experience. We had 18 participants in Beyond Akeela’s inaugural summer and it was a huge success. In addition to having an amazing summer at camp, they also came away with concrete skills and experience in the areas of job readiness, managing money, cooking & nutrition, college options and appropriate peer relationships. They toured colleges, attended cooking and banking classes, volunteered in a variety of community service efforts, organized and led in-camp activities, discussed relationships and sexuality, went shopping and did their own laundry, challenged themselves on outdoor adventure trips, and much more. The program culminated in a 4-day trip on which they put all their newfound skills to work while living independently (with staff supervision!) in condominiums.

Overall, it was a huge success and a program we look forward to offering for many years to come. Reading the New York Times article last week allowed us to reflect on and be thankful for the role we may play in helping a very deserving group of people find what we all seek in life: loving, fulfilling and reciprocal relationships with people who value and respect us.

— Eric


Welcome to our blog!

We’re so excited to share this blog with you.  We will mostly be writing about what we know best: Asperger’s (and NLD, PDD-NOS, …) and summer camp.  But we’ll also share our thoughts about general child development and parenting, along with specific news from Camp Akeela and whatever else catches our interest in the world!