A mom from Akeela Family Camp recently posted a research study about individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome and empathy. (The 2009 study by Henry and Kamila Markram of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne is referenced here, here and elsewhere). While the research is a few years old, we believe it is extremely relevant.
We have always said that the notion that our campers (and those like them) lack empathy is absolutely bogus. We have seen time and time again that our campers are extremely caring individuals who are capable of understanding the emotions of others and showing them compassion. There are times at camp when we believe that a typically developing child would not be as insightful in an emotional moment as our children are. We had a 11-year-old camper this past summer who made it his goal to help support all of the campers he met who were feeling homesick. There were many times when we would see this boy with his arm around a peer and overhear him saying something like, “It’s OK to feel sad; I felt sad my first summer too”.
Our experience is reflective of the Markrams’ research conclusions: that those with ASD are actually hypersensitive to the emotional experiences of those around them. That “over-experiencing” of others’ emotions can be very overwhelming and can create the individual to shut down or escape into their own world.
We believe it is imperative that we not assume how others experience the world. We’ve often told parents that our kids work harder than most performing everyday tasks; it’s as if they are trying to interact with environmental stimuli while simultaneously performing long division at hearing background static. It’s hard to do so many things at once. When our campers “shut down” or retreat into themselves for a few minutes, we don’t assume they are disinterested. Instead, we suspect they are taking a moment to organize their experience. Although our campers do not always know how to express themselves in the exact ways that society expects, they deserve to be recognized as people filled with genuine feelings, rich emotional lives and yes, empathy.
I have begun reading the book Homesick and Happy by Michael Thompson, PhD, and just twenty pages in, the book has resonated with my life tremendously. Thompson discusses the importance of experiencing the “magic of camp” as a young person and how camp experiences can foster independence and confidence that can’t be developed at home. Campers form incredible bonds and learn so much about themselves and others when they are away at camp.
Although I had many things going for me through my high school and college years, I never was a very confident person. When I came to Akeela in 2009 as a cabin counselor & accounting intern, I had no idea that it would completely change my life. Four summers later, it is so apparent how camp made me a much more confident and happy person. Camp introduced me to lifelong friends, challenged me to step out of my comfort zone, and has given me some of my most positive and happy life experiences. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing several campers come back for all the summers I’ve been at Akeela, and it’s easy to see the “magic of camp” has had the same affect on their lives.
I know it can be hard as a young person to take the leap and go away from home to camp. Growing up, I couldn’t stand to be away from home for 3 ½ weeks, let alone one week! However, going to a sleep away camp can be a magical and life changing experience in any person’s life. Homesick and Happy has emphasized the importance of going to camp as a young person and I could not agree more!
I’ll update the blog with more of my thoughts on Homesick and Happy as I continue through the book!
P.S. – I’m thrilled to be working year round with Debbie & Eric now for Akeela. I look forward to getting to know you all a little better throughout the next couple years!
I can only imagine what it feels like to be labeled as “disabled”. In our six summers running Akeela, I have learned that our campers are extremely “abled” and have many talents to celebrate. Do our campers (and their families) struggle? Are there difficult moments, days, weeks, years? Are there challenges that seem small and others that are life-altering and terrible scary? Yes – of course. However, in order for our campers to reach their enormous potential, they must be shown that they are capable of achieving their goals.
What has been most profound for me, as a director at Camp Akeela, has been watching how powerful a community can be. Our campers, who are often left on the outside (by individual peers, by society at large, or by institutions that liken them to the “gravely ill”) thrive when they are part of a community – when they truly feel accepted and valued for who they are. I wish that more people could see our campers at Akeela so that they could witness their successes. Of course I support organizations that help advance science and look towards treatments that can help make the lives of those living with autism easier/better/happier. I just wish those same organizations were also honoring and supporting the communities which celebrate the same individuals.
I want to honor JER’s leadership as he champions the rights of the ASD community. He is certainly an example of the amazing contributions those on the spectrum make to our larger world community.
After our campers (grades 4-12) leave camp, a different type camper arrives….families! It’s a bit of a shift for us! It’s strange having so many grownups around. And yet, for the past two years, it’s been one of the most special weeks of the year for us. This summer, 16 families joined us at camp. We spent the days enjoying the absolutely perfect August weather in Vermont – swimming and boating, zipping on the ropes course, playing sports, doing art and most importantly, getting to know each other. For many of our Family Camp campers, this is their first camp experience and it is very special for us to watch them gain a sense of independence and pride that they’ve never felt anywhere else. Of course, we experience this at “regular” camp all the time but to experience this through a parent’s eyes is truly exceptional. Parents have actually gotten a chance to witness what we do every day of the summer and it only reinforces how special camp can be.
What’s also been so valuable to us has been the relationships we’ve seen develop amongst the parents who come to camp. We have felt so lucky to have learned so much from the parents who bring their campers to camp. During family camp, we spend all day talking and laughing and crying with them and have a chance to hear about what life is truly like for each of them. They form their own community of support and strength and being able to experience that has been very special for us
When we started Akeela, we always dreamed that it would be more than just a summer experience for our campers and their families. We wanted it to be a community that had some impact on people throughout the year. Family Camp has been one way in which we’ve done that. We continue to think about ways to expand our mission to include more families over a greater length of time and hope that more and more children and parents will have an opportunity to experience Akeela in the future.
It’s hard to believe that the summer has passed already – There’s an old saying in the world of camping that a day feels like a week, a week feels like a month and a month feels like a year. It explains how we can all become so close so quickly. And yet, when we look back and reflect on the time, it seems like the month was really a week!
We never stop feeling amazed at how much our staff and campers are able to achieve together in 3.5 short weeks. Many of our campers have never been away from home before and yet, at the end of camp, when their parents arrive to pick them up, they take them on a tour of camp as if it is their second home. They introduce them to friends they’ve made and they “show off” their new talents. We feel so proud to be a part of such a life-changing community. All day today, parents have thanked us for giving their child this opportunity for growth and friendship and we are grateful for the words of appreciation. But, we know that we had very little to do with all of the successes – we bring people together and the magic that happens at camp is due mostly to our staff and the experience that camp can bring to any child. It’s the opportunity for independence and challenge that is life-changing. It’s the way campers receive feedback from staff and from their peers on a continual basis. It’s the fact that everyone at Akeela feels like they are valued and important – a part of a community.
We love what we do and feel lucky to do it. We know how camp has changed our lives, both as children and now, as adults and are so happy to share it with a new generation. We are honored that so many parents have trusted us with their children and believe in what we’re doing at Akeela. While it’s always sad to say goodbye, we are already looking forward to next summer and hope to see many of our friends again in 2014.
I used to do a lot of theater when I was younger – mostly musicals – and I find myself humming “Another Opening, Another Show” today. Most of our staff members have been here at camp with us for 8-14 days; the others have been here since the end of May. We’ve been busy getting our site ready, learning about all of our campers, talking about safety (physical and emotional), behavior, food, fun and social skills. We’ve shared with them our vision for camp. Eric and I dress up, make colorful signs and attempt to be funny in skits we’ve written in an effort to impart to our staff everything we believe in – mainly, that we are about to embark together on the most incredible, life-changing summer experience on the planet. Standing in front of our staff of approximately 100 people today and reminding them of that mission, I feel confident that they really “get it”. This is a special group of staff and I’m thrilled to work with them for the next two months.
This is our sixth summer at Akeela and I still get a nervous stomach on opening day – much like I used to as I waited backstage for the orchestra to begin the overture. I used to start questioning myself, “Will I remember my lines”, “will my props be where they’re supposed to”, “will the cast remember their lines”, and “will I trip onstage”? Today, as I wait for the buses to pull in to camp I ask new questions, “Will everyone feel great about themselves when they leave”, “Will everyone make a friend”, “Will they grow”, “Will they feel more confident and proud of their achievements”, “Will they feel as though they’ve been a part of something bigger than themselves”?
I’m excited. This is what we’ve been working towards all year. Another Opening of the most Amazing, Life-Changing Summer Experience on the Planet!
Akeela’s fifth summer is now behind us as we prepare for summer 2013 and our second half-decade. We hope everyone takes some time to look through our past newsletters and that you’ve been reading our blog!
Don’t forget about our two exciting new(ish) programs: Beyond Akeela is for young men and women who have completed grade 11 or 12 and Family Camp is for everyone!