The Limitations of Neurotypical Peer Modeling in Teaching Social Skills to Neurodivergent Individuals

It’s widely understood that neurodivergent individuals, including those with autism, NLD or ADHD, often face unique challenges in navigating social interactions. It also goes without saying that a certain level of comfort with social skills is crucial for personal and professional success in today’s world. What seems to be less clear is how to best teach social skills to neurodivergent kids and teens.

Traditional methods of learning social skills often rely on neurotypical peer modeling, assuming that observing and imitating typical behavior will lead to successful social integration. When we started Camp Akeela in 2008, one of our foundational principles was that this concept of “modeling” in neurotypical environments had significant limitations.

Challenges with Neurotypical Peer Modeling

1. Lack of Relatability:
Neurodivergent individuals may struggle to relate to neurotypical peers due to fundamental differences in their cognitive processing. Neurotypical social behaviors and cues may be perplexing or overwhelming for neurodivergent individuals, making it challenging for them to internalize and apply these learned behaviors in real-life situations.

2. Non-Contextual Learning:
Neurotypical peer modeling often occurs in controlled environments, such as classrooms or therapy sessions, which may not mirror the complexities of real-world social situations. Neurodivergent individuals might struggle to generalize the learned behaviors to different settings, hindering their ability to adapt and apply social skills across diverse contexts.

3. Sensory Overload:
Many neurodivergent individuals experience sensory sensitivities that neurotypical individuals may not fully comprehend. Traditional peer modeling may not consider these sensory challenges, leading to difficulties in processing and implementing social skills effectively. Sensory overload can result in anxiety and withdrawal, hindering the learning process.

Neurodiverse Peer Modeling at Camp

The past 16 summers of leading Camp Akeela have only reinforced our belief that an immersive and specialized environment like camp can be a vehicle for more effective social skills development. Indeed, because Akeela is a community that is, specifically and intentionally, designed for our neurodivergent campers – and ALL of our campers fit that description – it is the perfect environment in which to pursue alternative approaches that lead to meaningful social growth.

Alternative Approaches That Work for Neurodivergent Children

1. Contextual Learning:
Instead of focusing solely on isolated skills in controlled environments, emphasizing contextual learning in natural, everyday settings can better prepare neurodivergent individuals for real-world social challenges. Interactive and immersive experiences allow for a more holistic understanding of social dynamics, promoting generalization and application of social skills, along with adaptability in various situations.

2. Neurodivergent Peers:
Providing neurodivergent individuals with peers who share similar neurodivergent profiles offers more relatable examples of successful social interactions. They are more motivated to build and maintain deep friendships when they share interests and experiences with others.

3. Individualized Social Skills Coaching:
Recognizing the unique strengths and challenges of each neurodivergent individual is crucial for effective social skills training. Tailoring interventions to address specific needs, such as sensory sensitivities or communication styles, ensures a more personalized and successful learning experience.

4. Near-Peer Role Models Who Are Trained As “Social Coaches”:
Summer camp counselors are in a unique position to have a positive impact on young people in their care. Because they’re typically 20 – 25 years old, they can relate to campers in a way that differs from parents and teachers. When they are carefully trained to provide social feedback and in-the-moment coaching, they can make a dramatic difference in their campers’ social skills.

While neurotypical peer modeling has been a prevalent method for teaching social skills, its limitations in catering to the unique needs of neurodivergent individuals cannot be ignored. Our campers benefit greatly from being surrounded by peers who experience the world in similar ways to them. They feel a sense of true belonging and acceptance, which allows them to be more open to receiving and implementing social feedback and coaching. When this happens in an environment that presents countless real-world challenges and scenarios, social skills don’t have to be “taught”. Instead, they are practiced in a way that breeds success and confidence, all of which help young people internalize and generalize those skills to other situations. Ultimately, this means more fulfilled and successful neurodivergent individuals — and a society that is lucky enough to benefit from their amazing and unique contributions!

Looking to learn more? We have a plethora of articles and resources for parents, and kids alike, to provide insights into the world of neurodiversity. Whether you are looking for book recommendations, life skill advice, or want to learn more about the importance of independence, check out our blog!


October 2023 Newsletter

Read The October 2023 Newsletter Here

Despite a very rainy first session, 2023 was an absolutely wonderful summer at Camp Akeela! It was filled with friendship, spirit, warmth, pride and fun. All of that comes from bringing together a community of incredibly kind campers who open themselves up to all of the wonders that camp has to offer.

As we look back on the summer, we feel so much gratitude for our staff. Speaking with our colleagues in the camp world always reminds us just how lucky we are to attract such a talented, passionate and dedicated set of counselors and staff members. 2023 brought a large group of first-time Akeela counselors and as we’ve following up with them throughout the fall, it’s striking to hear how much Akeela already means to them. They think about camp as they resume their college coursework or get back to their jobs, and many are planning to return for another summer in 2024!

Debbie, Eric and Erin are already busy in our Philadelphia office preparing for next summer. In addition to re-enrolling returning campers, we have a record number of new families inquiring about camp and we’re excited to share the Akeela experience with them!

Thank you to all of the parents/guardians and campers who completed our post-summer surveys. We’re always learning and growing, and are so grateful for your partnership in continuing to expand Akeela’s horizons!

We hope you enjoy this newsletter, in which you will find:

  • A reminder of 2024’s dates
  • Quotes from the post-camp survey responses
  • A fall recipe from Chef Trina
  • News about our most recent (and 14th) “Akeela baby”
  • A photo collage from Summer 2023
  • Updates from staff members
  • Read The October 2023 Newsletter Here

Helping Children Work Through Anxiety At Camp

I accomplished two things last week.

First, I finished reading one of the most insightful and helpful books I’ve read in a long time.  It’s called, “The Coddling of the American Mind”.  You’ve maybe heard of it, as the authors, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, have been discussing their thoughts on social media for a number of years now. The book was published in 2018 after their article in The Atlantic got a lot of attention a few years earlier. I read it because I was interested in hearing their thoughts about life on college campuses, both because we work with 100 college students every summer and because I’m raising two daughters who will one day be young adults themselves!  

The second thing I did was take a 2-day training with Eli Liebowitz at the Yale Child Study Center. I wrote about his SPACE program in a previous blog and was so interested in his theory and process that I wanted to learn how to put it into practice myself.  As a reminder, Dr. Leibowitz has created a way for clinicians to work with the PARENTS of kids who are anxious in an effort to help them teach their children that they have the ability to do hard things, that they can work through discomfort – without parents “accommodating” them by removing the stressors or coming to their aid.  The idea is that we can help parents step back so that their children understand their own resilience. It’s powerful and it works!  

Insights from “The Coddling of the American Mind” and the SPACE Program

So, what do these two accomplishments have in common, and what do they have to do with camp?  Well, first, I love sharing resources with our Akeela community so I’d urge you to explore both the book and the SPACE program. Also, I’m excited to bring what I’ve learned to our campers and staff this summer.  The biggest overlap for me is the idea that when things make us feel uncomfortable, we are not necessarily unsafe or in any real danger.  There is what Haidt and Lukianoff call the “Great Untruth” of “safetyism” that is pervasive on college campuses and, I would argue, is also spreading out into the general public, including our middle and high schools. They suggest that many people now believe this: “What doesn’t kill me makes me weaker”….a (faulty) belief that we need to avoid all pain and any POTENTIAL struggle.  

Another “untruth” from the book is “Always trust your feelings” without challenging or questioning them. The authors explain that there is an underlying sense that we need to act on our FEELINGS without pause. “Trusting your gut” is fine and serves a purpose, but both of these untruths also mean that a large number of people – and I’m most worried about our teens and young adults here – are missing out on GROWTH opportunities.  Blindly following your feelings rather than questioning the thoughts and data that might accompany those emotions can be unwise and unhelpful. If we don’t face challenges or take a chance, we will never learn or stretch — and that is concerning. If we allow our child to sleep next to us every night because he is afraid of the dark, we are not giving him the chance to develop a belief in himself that he can be safe on his own. If we allow our child to eat by herself in the nurse’s office every day because she’s worried that someone will tease her in the cafeteria, we are validating her belief/thought that she can’t tolerate discomfort of something that hasn’t even happened yet … and thus might miss out on making a friend.

Encouraging Growth Through Discomfort at Camp

One of the suggestions at the end of “Coddling” is that parents should send their children to camp. Of course! Camp is where we challenge campers to stretch their comfort zones. Parents often ask me on our initial call about camp, “What do you recommend when a child doesn’t want to go to camp because he’s never done it before?” And I always say the same thing, “MOST children – especially children who struggle socially and with anxiety – do not want to do something new.  It’s hard and it takes work … AND with guidance and managed expectations, most kids are able to push through that initial fear and are able to truly thrive at camp.” What a gift to be able to give to children: the ability to help them learn that they have what it takes to work through something uncomfortable, and to come out the other side of those feelings with a sense of accomplishment and pride, stronger and more resilient for the experience. It’s honestly the best part of what we do at camp.  

Akeela’s Commitment to Helping Children Thrive at Camp

A few takeaways that we’ll be implementing at camp this summer:

  • We will continue to encourage our campers and staff to recognize the growth potential in doing things that make them uncomfortable: things they are scared to try, things that they think they may not be good at, things they’ve never done before — of course without ever compromising their physical or emotional safety.
  • We will use language like this, “I know you’re worried about trying this and I’m 100% confident that you have what it takes to do it.”
  • We will not “over-accommodate” campers or staff who are feeling anxious about something.  Instead, we will explain how confident we are that they can do it and will give them space and support they need to succeed.  

While none of this is really NEW to us at Akeela, it’s always nice to be reminded how important camp is.  We believe that camp is one of the best ways to teach kids (and staff) the skills they need to become resilient. We can’t wait to get back to work this summer!

Akeela Newsletter – February 2023

Read The Entire Newsletter Here

Akeela will be celebrating our Sweet 16 this summer! A lot has changed since our first summer together on Miller Pond. In 2008:

  • We had three sessions with 40 campers in each session.
  • There was no porch on the Dining Hall!
  • Bunks 7, 8, 16, 17 & 18 weren’t yet built!
  • The archery range was where the golf range currently is (and there was no golf program)!
  • Debbie and Eric didn’t have any kids yet! (Debbie was pregnant with their daughter, Margo.)
  • Evening Meeting was held every night at “The Chimney” – a small platform that was where the Lodge is now, and where the Amphitheater is now was just woods back then!

One big change this summer is that we have one more bunk dedicated to our female-identifying campers, getting us closer to having a more balanced gender ratio. We are so thrilled to know that we are getting closer to camp fully representing neurodiversity across all genders. It seems that camp is reflective of the shift in the diagnostics recently as well. More and more girls are getting diagnosed with ASD, ADHD and NVLD and are finally finding the support and community they deserve.

It’s hard to believe that it’s already (almost) March! We’ll be heading to New Jersey in 2 weeks for our annual conference with over 3,000 other camp professionals. It’s one of our favorite weeks of the year as we love learning from our colleagues and bringing wonderful new ideas back to Akeela. It also signifies, for us, that camp is JUST around the corner. From all of our years in camping, we know that the next few months will be filled with planning our staff orientation, scheduling a few online camper zooms, and sending parents lots of information and forms!

We know that YOU are also getting ready for camp and this Newsletter is filled with lots of reminders about upcoming dates/deadlines and tips to help you (campers and parents) prepare for a wonderful summer at Akeela. Please make sure you read through the Family Handbook carefully and call or email us if you have any questions.

In this version of the Akeela newsletter, you will find:

  • Information about CampLauncher, a nonprofit organization that helps to increase access to specialized camps like ours.
  • A reminder about Open House at camp, for enrolled families, taking place on on June 11th this year
  • An exciting announcement about a new activity at Akeela this summer!
  • Guidelines for how campers can prepare for camp between now and the summer
  • A “Parent Planner” of items for parents and guardians to keep on their radar as camp approaches
  • Staff and camper updates
  • A list of returning campers currently re-enrolled

Read The Entire Newsletter Here

Choosing the Right Asperger’s Summer Camp for 2023

As the parent of a child with Asperger’s, we know that you want to find the right camp that will help your child develop social skills, confidence, and independence. With so many choices available, it can be overwhelming to choose the right camp for your child. Here are some things to consider when choosing an Asperger’s Teen Camp for 2023.

Akeela offers a unique experience for kids and teens with Asperger’s, and similar neurodiverse profiles, with a focus on social skills development

Camp Akeela is truly something special, offering a unique summer experience for campers with Asperger’s. With a focus on social skills development, Camp Akeela provides an environment that promotes independence, self-confidence, and growth. Through activities specifically tailored to neurodivergent children, as well as scaffolded support from specialists in fields like Social Work, Psychology or Special Education, Camp Akeela allows these remarkable children to take part in experiences unlike any other summer camp – growing and learning together as part of an accepting community.

Camp Akeela also offers a variety of activities, from traditional camp activities like swimming and hiking to more specialized programs like drama, music, cooking, and art. With a wide range of activities for all interests and ability levels, your child will be able to make the most out of their summer at Camp Akeela.

Camp Akeela provides a supportive and inclusive environment for all children

Camp Akeela is an Asperger’s sleepaway camp that creates a unique and supportive environment for children with neurodiversity. Through empowering activities and interactive social skills workshops, campers begin to build community as they create meaningful friendships through trust, mutual respect, and love. Every activity is designed to foster a sense of unity as everyone strives to reach confidence and independence in an inclusive atmosphere. Camp Akeela not only encourages campers to make friends and be productive within their own social circles – they also provide lasting impressions as these children leave the camp each summer brimming with a newfound sense of self-belief and appreciation for those around them.

Akeela helps children to develop confidence and independence through various activities

At Camp Akeela, Asperger’s children can experience the benefits of developing confidence and gaining independence through engaging in age-appropriate activities that are combined with being part of a team. These activities include sports, crafts, and nature-based projects as well as educational discussions intended to help children improve their social skills as well as learn problem-solving strategies. The dedicated staff and volunteers at this camp strive to create a safe and supportive environment where children have the opportunity to develop positive self-esteem as they embrace the challenges of achieving their goals in this encouraging summer camp setting.

The camp staff are experienced and qualified to work with neurodiverse children

At Camp Akeela, camp counselors are experienced and qualified to provide the highest quality of care for children with neurodiversity. They understand the unique needs of campers and recognize that fostering independence is a key factor in campers’ social and cognitive development. Through activities like sports or recreational events, campers learn to work together as a team while developing problem-solving skills and self-empowerment. Camp staff carefully observe campers’ progress and adjust the activities accordingly so campers can gain a sense of accomplishment, improve their confidence and build meaningful relationships with their camp peers.

Apply for Summer 2023

Camp Akeela is the perfect place for you to apply your child for camp 2023! This supportive, creative, and engaging summer sleepaway camp allows children with Asperger’s or NLD — or similar neurodivergent campers — to have an amazing time building social skills, independence, and developing confidence. Through various activities designed specifically for them, your child will be able to gain an unforgettable experience meeting new friends and creating positive memories that will last forever. Don’t miss out on this amazing opportunity!


October 2022 Newsletter

Read the October 2022 Newsletter Here

The newest edition of the Camp Akeela newsletter is here! In it, you will find:

  • A quick recap of the results of our post-camp survey for parents and guardians.
  • Updates from campers, including news & photos from recent get-togethers with camp friends, family vacations and accomplishments at school.
  • Erin’s thoughts on her first summer at Camp Akeela. Spoiler: She loved it!
  • The amazing results from the Akeela community’s fundraising efforts for CampLauncher. Our Launch-A-Thons raised over $22,000 for the charity.
  • Reflections on our new ICON (In Camp OverNight) program, which was a smashing success.
  • A reminder to put some Akeela swag on your holiday shopping lists.
  • Staff updates, including a bunch of mini reunions and news of Erin’s recent engagement!

To preview the survey results, here are a few comments that came from Akeela parents:

Akeela fulfilled all of our hopes and dreams — it was just what we were looking for! She found the place where the other kids and the staff “get” her and she can’t wait to go back!

He is more confident and more independent. He has new ways to express his needs and how he feels. He has a better sense of who he is and who he wants to be.

He had a remarkable experience. From my point of view, as a parent who did sleepover camp for over ten years and then worked on staff, I really wanted him to have the kind of life-changing experience I did. Finally we found a place where he can.

And here are a few improvements that we’re already working on, as a direct result of feedback we received in those parent surveys:

  1. We will be partnering with a different medication packaging service.
  2. We will be sending home more information about camper’s in-cabin counselors and specialists just prior to, or at the start of, the camp session.
  3. We’ll provide more options for how parents and guardians receive communication from their camper’s Head Counselor during the summer.

Read the October 2022 Newsletter Here

Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions – How SPACE and Camp Akeela accomplish similar goals

I was made aware of a program at the Yale Child Study Center last year and since hearing about it from a clinical colleague, it has come up around a dozen times. The program is called SPACE (Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions) and was created by Dr. Eli Lebowitz. The premise is one that I believe is the key to helping anxious children work through their emotions so that they can overcome challenges that might be keeping them from participating fully in activities (including ones that might seem “easy” to others – like sleeping). SPACE works with parents of anxious children. The child never actually meets with the therapist! Parents are taught how to set limits and boundaries around their own behaviors.

Common Methods of Dealing with Childhood Anxiety

As parents, we often OVER-support and over-correct for our child when they are struggling – it’s natural to want to fix something when our child is having a hard time. In actuality, rather than helping, we are often giving our children the message that they are helpless or that they have REASON to be anxious. We’re reinforcing their worries.

This is one of the key factors that contributes to why I believe our campers are so successful at Akeela. Parents often ask us, “What’s your secret?”, “How did you get my child to do xyz?”. There are a few answers but many times, it has to do with the fact that we are not our campers’ parents. That means that we have a different relationship with the children in our care and we are more likely to be able to set boundaries with them when necessary and helpful. In other words, we can be objective. At home, when a child is struggling, they know that a caregiver will likely be able to help them. They may ask for that help before they really do the hard work of trying over and over to accomplish their goal. At camp, a counselor is also always nearby but a child may actually make more of an effort to solve a problem or try something difficult before they ask for help. And when they ask for help, a counselor at camp is more likely to support them and cheer them on as they insist that the camper do the work before they step in themselves.

Providing Independence to Help Manage Childhood Anxiety

Camp provides a safe space for children to challenge and push themselves. Without parents to quickly step in and “fix” or “smooth out” challenges, campers learn that they have the necessary skills to do the hard things in life. Just the decision to send a child away to camp is an indicator that a parent WANTS a child to gain these skills. Although not always easy, letting go as a parent sends a message to a camper that they have faith that the child has the skills necessary to be independent.

As you think about sending your child away to camp for the first time, try to challenge yourself to wait before stepping in to aid your child. Tell them you believe in them – that you believe they have the skills necessary to complete the task or work through the anxiety at hand. Many children are motivated by camp (or another upcoming event, trip or social opportunity) and parents can use that as a way to help children step out of their own anxiety. You can say something like, “I know this feels hard right now but I/we know you can work through it on your own. Going to camp means that you will be able to accomplish so much without our help and this a great opportunity for you to practice right now.”

As parents, we have to do our own hard work in order to help our children succeed to the best of their ability. We have to let go of our very natural instinct to want to protect, save and care for our children when they are having a hard time. Because, in the end, letting go and stepping away is the most helpful thing we can do.

For more information about SPACE, you can check out these links:

Ted Talk from Eli Lebowitz:

SPACE program website:

May 2022 Newsletter

Read The Akeela Newsletter Here

The May 2022 edition of the Camp Akeela newsletter has arrived! In this issue:

  • Eric and Debbie outline the upcoming calendar and describe a typical day in the life of a camp director!
  • The first day of camp is described in detail, helping new campers know what to expect
  • We clarify the role of head counselor, and then introduce you to this year’s four amazing head counselors
  • Families are reminded about a few important items:
    • Shipping bags to camp
    • Required camp forms, which are now due
    • CampMeds, our pre-packaged and pre-dosed medication system
    • Ordering Akeela gear from The Camp Spot
  • You’ll meet the newest member of Nurse Amy’s family, who has a first name that may sound familiar!
  • A description of how we assign cabin counselors to age groups and bunks
  • A few words about Pen Pals … how we connect campers to bunkmates before camp even starts
  • Our annual list of where Akeela campers come from — a record 27 different states!
  • A quick explanation of the Launch-A-Thon, our exciting community service special event
  • A list of first-time Akeela campers coming this summer

Read the entire Akeela Newsletter here

March 2022 Newsletter

Read The Akeela Newsletter Here

The March 2022 edition of the Camp Akeela newsletter has arrived! In this issue:

  • Eric and Debbie share a few thoughts about how excited they are for this coming summer
  • Suggestions of specific things that campers can do between now and the summer to help them get ready for an amazing experience at Akeela
  • A “Parent Planner” to remind parents and guardians of what they have coming up in terms of preparation for camp
  • A wonderful piece written by Erin about how camp touches all of her senses
  • Important dates for upcoming camper Zoom gatherings
  • Vermont trivia, including the answer to last newsletter’s question
  • An enthusiastic welcome back and Q & A with Nurse Amy and her family
  • Lists of returning campers and returning staff members

Speaking of returning counselors, we invite you to follow us on Instagram and Facebook, where we will be introducing the community to the amazing new staff members that we’re bringing to Akeela this summer.

Read the entire Akeela Newsletter here

November 2021 Newsletter

Read The Akeela Newsletter Here

Dear Akeela Friends,

Thanksgiving is the perfect time to publish this newsletter because when we think about Akeela (which, let’s be honest, is ALL the time!), the word that comes to mind most readily is gratitude. Indeed, we have much to be thankful for.

In this newsletter, you’ll find news updates from campers and staff. Reading those updates reminded us what an incredible group of people come together each summer at camp.

We are also very thankful for the years that Ben Jerez spent with us at Akeela. Earlier this fall, we were very proud to see him accept the position of assistant director at a wonderful camp in Michigan. While we are very sad to see Ben leave, we are equally excited to welcome Erin Stewart to our team, as Akeela’s new assistant director! Erin starts next week but we already know that she is going to have a huge positive impact on Akeela. Read all about Erin in this edition of the Akeela newsletter.)

We feel so very lucky to be part of the Akeela community. We hope you feel the same way and that you’re also counting down the days until summer 2022!

Debbie & Eric

In this newsletter, you’ll find:

  • an introduction to Akeela’s new assistant director, Erin Stewart
  • lots of camper and staff news updates
  • a Vermont trivia question
  • a sneak peak at an exciting new program area for 2022

Read The Akeela Newsletter Here