With cold weather and more snow than we’ve had in a number of years here in Philly, we are even MORE excited that camp is on the horizon! We cannot wait for June! Eric and Ben have been spending a great deal of time interviewing staff who have impressed us with their talents and passion. We’ve also rehired a number of former staff members who can’t wait to get back to Miller Pond. And, of course, we’ve loved catching up with all of you by phone, emails and on our virtual programs. Debbie has been busier than ever meeting and enrolling new campers who are so excited to join the Akeela community this summer.
Camp is happening and we’re ready for it!
Of course, we know many of you have questions about how camp will be different this summer due to COVID. This newsletter includes some answers to those questions. Hopefully, you’ve also visited our COVID web page, which is updated regularly.
You’ll also find information about a couple of very exciting upcoming webinars:
February 28, 2021: Helping My Neurodiverse Child Get Ready for Life’s Transitions (Including Going To Camp!), with Dr. Anthony Rostain and Dr. B Janet Hibbs, authors of The Stressed Years of Their Lives. Register here for this FREE webinar.
Being a camp director is probably one of the most fulfilling careers a person can ask for. We work for nine months every year hiring staff, thinking about ways to improve our program, helping children connect with one another, improving our site … and the list goes on. When we realized that COVID-19 might affect this summer, we were actually at a camp conference in New Jersey with 3,000 other camp professionals. At that time, public health professionals and advisors were telling us to hang tight – they explained that most viruses die out in warmer weather and that testing and social distancing would really get the virus under control. We started planning for more cleaning supplies and soap and hand sanitizer. We began meeting with our camp colleagues on bi-weekly Zoom calls to talk about the hows and what-ifs. We had no idea in March that in May, we’d have to make the heart-breaking decision not to run our two camper sessions this summer.
As we end our third month of quarantine and maintaining social distance from our friends and community, we are starting to really feel the effects of being isolated. Our kids are really lonely and are expressing sadness about the loss of their own connections and communities. We are craving experiences outside of the walls of our home – taking hikes and going on neighborhood walks are certainly helpful but they don’t compare to having friends over for dinner, sitting in our favorite restaurants or going to the zoo or art museum with our kids. We often stay up late talking in whispers about when this will end. When will we be able to have our kids play with their friends? When will we feel safe going into busier places?
We believe that Family Camp is a great “next step” for us to start to safely and slowly expand our family “bubbles” (and two camp doctors who wrote this op-ed in the New York Times agree). Social connection with others is so important at this time, especially for young people with Asperger’s and autism. We want to have a chance to allow our campers and their parents and siblings to enjoy the Vermont air and more SPACE! Swimming in a lake seems like a luxury right now. I can’t imagine how I’ll feel when I can let my kids run around camp and not feel so confined. Maybe we’ll keep the screens off for a while! The change of scenery might be enough to help me feel less trapped and anxious. I’ve always thought that just being at Akeela feels sacred. Being in a special place where I can be with other people in a safer way will help me feel connected. And right now, that’s what we all need.
Why Camp is still Important for High School Students
I recently had a conversation with a long-time Camp Akeela parent. She was wondering whether or not camp was still an appropriate summer option for her 10th grader. After many years at Akeela, she wondered if it was time to move on. So to encourage her son to get a job or to take summer classes. She is certainly not alone in asking these questions. As parents, many of us constantly worry if we’re making the right choices for our children. Are we pushing them enough? Are we pushing too hard? And how much should we push during the summer? Many parents wonder if their kids need some down time. And others worry that too much unstructured time leads to feeling depressed or lonely or even more anxious.
The transition phase for important life skill
As camp directors, it’s probably obvious that we believe that for most kids, camp is an amazing opportunity for our older teens. For our long-time campers, one final summer as “the oldest”, is like a graduation year. They benefit from feeling like they are the leaders in the community. That they have knowledge and wisdom about life that they can share with their younger peers. It also enables them to learn how to transition away from childhood. So many of our oldest campers struggle with saying goodbye. Either avoiding it all-together or becoming so emotional that it overwhelms other people. Having a final summer at camp with peers who are going through the same transition is an opportunity to teach them. This very important life skill which will continue to come up as they begin new experiences and then have to leave them (college, jobs, relationships…etc.).
Camp Akeela Experience
We also believe that there is an important arc to the Akeela experience. One where campers build upon skills they’ve developed in other years at Akeela. In their oldest years at camp, our teens get more choice in their activity. More freedom to be in camp with less direct (obvious) supervision and opportunities to lead activities. And also to be role-models for younger campers.
After 9th and 10th grades, our campers participate in our “Teen Time” program where they can choose to participate in writing and performing Camp News. Or STEM projects (robotics and building an escape room) and community leadership (planning and running a camp activity and working closely with a younger bunk of campers). In addition, our oldest teens benefit from guided conversations around topics that are particularly salient to that age group such as romantic relationships, appropriate use of social media and technology and wellness (mental health, hygiene, sleep and nutrition).
Finally, camp is fun. While of course we believe there is value to learning how important it is to work hard and to earn money. We also think that finding opportunities for our campers to really connect with peers in a meaningful way. To feel totally accepted and to be a part of a community where they are valued is just not something that can be undervalued. As our campers prepare for life beyond high school, we want them to head in to that next phase of their lives. On feeling secure in who they are. We believe camp allows them to do that.
Besides being a camp director, I also have my doctorate in Clinical Psychology. During my studies in NY, I became interested in in the study of sleep and later became a Certified Sleep Consultant. Helping families get the rest they need is extremely fulfilling and so important. As I began to work more and more with children with special needs – mostly those with Aspergers, ASD, ADD and ADHD, I learned that these kids have a greater incidence of insomnia. Every summer at camp, I’m reminded of HOW MUCH SLEEP our campers need. I tell my sleep colleagues that we’re likely the only residential summer camp in New England (or in the country!) that is quiet by 10:15pm!
When I teach other sleep consultants about working with “quirky kids”, I am very clear that although they seem to have a greater sleep need, they still benefit from all of the tools we use when we work with our other clients. Most importantly, all of us (including parents) need to have a very consistent sleep routine and we need to get to bed early enough to allow our bodies to get the sleep we need. We should wake up and rise at the same times every day – regardless of weekends! (This allows our natural body clocks, to be well established and in tune with the natural light cycles of our seasons.)
Here are some important tips for parents:
Many of our campers have a great deal of Anxiety and need extra time to settle down – make sure that’s built into their schedule!
Anxious kids benefit from help in “turning off” their busy minds – in order to help them do this, I love using guided meditations. The free app, Insight Timer, is wonderful and allows you to search for kid-friendly bedtime meditations for as short or as long as you’d like. (Good luck staying awake if you’re listening with your child!)
Medications prescribed for ADHD and some other meds can interfere with the TIMING of sleep. It is very important to discuss sleep troubles with the prescribing physician to see if the time of administration or dosage needs to be adjusted later in the day to allow for an early enough bedtime.
Our campers tend to be quite sedentary during the school year. Reading books and playing video games does not allow for children to get the exercise they need to expel all of their energy. Get them moving! Even just a walk around the block, a period of bouncing on a yoga ball, or some jumping jacks at least an hour before bed (best if it’s done throughout the day if possible).
Get outside! Natural light really has an impact on our sleep cycles. When possible – even if you have to bundle up or grab an umbrella – get some natural light.
Finally, turn off the screens. By now, most people know that blue light and sleep don’t mix. Don’t use devices for self-soothing at bedtime. Read a “real” book, listen to soft music or a podcast, or a meditation! Yoga Nidra is wonderful for children who need something more physical to help relax but please – don’t turn on your devices!
A letter from Debbie and Eric, looking back on the Winter Weekend camper reunion and looking forward to our upcoming alumni reunion in honor of 10 years of Akeela!
A checklist to help campers and parents prepare for camp, starting with some advice for this winter and taking you right through the weeks leading up to your arrival at camp.
A little teaser about some exciting new programming we’re introducing this summer for our oldest campers. 9th and 10th grade teens have some great stuff to look forward to!
Kevin’s look back at another fantastic Winter Weekend, which was attended by 53 campers and 18 staff members.
Information for parents about the ways we partner with them throughout the summer. We also share details about what to expect from our end-of-summer camper reports.
Another Akeela wedding! David Leach and Amanda Perry tied the knot in Manchester, England earlier this winter.
Introductions to our incredible team of head counselors. Check out their photos and bios, including their favorite camp food!
Lists of upcoming birthdays, returning campers and returning staff.
The first edition of “Greg’s Gab”, which introduces our newest year-round staff member, Greg Walker. Greg, of course, isn’t new to Akeela – he’s been a camper favorite since arriving in the summer of 2012!
A can’t-miss profile of an impressive Akeela alumnus, Nolan D. He catches us up on what he’s been doing since his camper days, including his passion for working in the video game industry.
As any parent whose child has a 504 plan or an IEP knows. Sometimes the special education process can be frustrating, if not infuriating. Parents struggle to maintain positive relationships with school staff while also ensuring that their children are getting their needs met. Some school IEP “teams” are effective professionals with the child’s best interest at heart. If you have one of those, count your lucky stars and bake them some cookies! However, even these types of teams sometimes face limitations, like lack of staff or pressure from the district. “Good” team or ineffective team, children are entitled to a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA). Protecting your child’s right to FAPE can be exhausting and confusing. There may be times when you need some help. Consider hiring a special education attorney when:
Special Education Process Lawyer
The IEP team refuses to evaluate your child for a disability, or staff outside the IEP process tell you your child doesn’t need to be evaluated.
IEP Team says “we don’t do that” [in general]. Remember, this is an INDIVIDUAL education plan.
IEP Team says they don’t have the resources or funding to give your child what she needs.
Your child has an IEP but is not making progress in YOUR opinion. For example, a child with a learning disability is not making reading progress, or a child who needs social support isn’t getting services to address this issue or doesn’t seem to be improving.
Your child is suspended or expelled, ESPECIALLY if you believe the behavior was related to the disability in some way.
You are considering filing a state complaint under IDEA, or you are considering filing for due process.
Keep in mind that as you move through the special education process, and especially if there are active disagreements. The school team has access to, or is actively consulting with, the school system’s attorney. If you are considering steps that will get their lawyer or legal office involved. (like contacting the director of special education or superintendent, filing for due process, or filing a complaint under IDEA) You should also have this benefit, since you can be sure that their lawyer will be reviewing everything you say or write.
How to hire a special education lawyer
If you decide to hire an attorney to help you through this process, be sure you are consulting with someone who practices special education law exclusively or at least primarily. There are certainly general practice attorneys who will be happy to get involved, but special education law is a highly specialized practice, and interacting with school systems is more effectively done by someone who is familiar with the players in your district. Ask any lawyer you are considering hiring what percentage of their practice is special education, how many special education cases they have handled, and what their familiarity is with your district.
A word about “advocates”
Hiring an “advocate” can be tricky, because there is no universal qualification or training process. Ask anyone you are thinking of working with to describe the specific and on-going training they have received, their level of experience, their relationship with your district and the point at which they would refer you to a professional educational consultant or attorney.
Hiring a special education consultant, meaning a trained special educator, psychologist, or another qualified professional to observe your child in school, review records, and make behavioral or educational recommendations, including possibly presenting those recommendations to the team, is often an effective, helpful step to ensuring both that your child gets what she needs and that you are confident that her best interest is paramount. Special education attorneys consult and work closely with educational consultants.
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.
The holidays are a stressful time for everyone. There are gifts to buy, meals to cook and family members to visit. The joy that we all look forward to and the warm family moments around the fireplace sharing memories of seasons past are often fantasies that don’t work out the way we plan. And then, the joy becomes stress and resentment. All of this is true for most families but it is more common for families who have a child who struggles socially (including those with Asperger’s, NLD / NVLD).
Holidays bring about change and change is hard! At Camp Akeela, we do everything we can to prepare our campers for changes in routine. We try to give them as much notice as possible. (Rainy day plans are more difficult as the weather in Vermont is not always predictable!) Schedule changes are discussed and printed. We allow some time for our kids to express disappointment and frustration with any changes but then we move on and get them involved in an activity that they enjoy. When we can anticipate the events that make our children anxious, we can help alleviate (though not eliminate) that anxiety and perhaps allow for smoother sailing.
Our campers really enjoy helping others and they get very involved in our community service days at camp. The holidays are a wonderful time to remind our children of how much they have to be thankful for in their lives and to share some of that with others. Perhaps your child can choose a local charity that he is interested in supporting and can do some research on how he can support that cause. Then, the whole family can get involved in working together to give back. This is a wonderful way to spend family time and to teach children empathy. (It’s also a great way to add structure to a week without school!)
Many families have told us that they dread holidays … they spend family gatherings worrying that their child will do or say something that is embarrassing, inappropriate or rude, that he may have a complete meltdown and that everyone else will judge or give unsolicited (and unhelpful) advice. If we plan for these potential pitfalls and even predict them for key family members, the holiday may feel more relaxed and enjoyable.
Here are some suggestions for ways to make your holiday and family time run smoothly:
Preview any schedule changes a few days in advance and give your child a printed plan or itinerary.
Try to keep her routine as close to normal as possible. For example, for the week without school, try to keep wakeup, meals and bedtime as close to a typical day as possible. Maintain normal school-week expectations, when possible (e.g. limits on screen time, household responsibilities, etc.)
Make sure your child will find something familiar to eat at big holiday meals so that you know that he will eat something and feel valued
Bring along your child’s favorite game or an activity he can play with others at family gatherings
Bring along something she can do independently in case she does not want to participate in the group activities or conversations
Try to relax and enjoy your family. Things may not go exactly as planned but that’s ok … holidays never do!
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.