Closing Day

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.

-Eric and Debbie

Opening Day

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!


Dear Campers

Dear Akeela Campers & Parents,

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!

– Debbie & Eric

Asperger's Assoc. of NE Response to Newtown Tragedy

Like the rest of the country, we watched in horror as details emerged from Sandy Hook Elementary School last Friday. As parents and childcare professionals, this represents all of our worst nightmares come true. Our thoughts go out to all of the families who were most directly affected by the events in Newtown.

At this point, there is some speculation that the suspect had been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. We hope to blog later this week with our thoughts about that. In the meantime, we wanted to repost a statement from our friends at the Asperger’s Association of New England:

AANE Response to Connecticut Tragedy

— Eric and Debbie Sasson
Directors, Camp Akeela

Holiday Family Time with a Child with Special Needs

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!

— 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

Autism Awareness and an Increase in Diagnosed Children

As reported recently in the Wall Street Journal (and elsewhere), autism diagnoses have risen sharply in recent years. The CDC announced a 23% increase in the number of people diagnosed “on the spectrum”, including as many as 1 in 88 American children.

As always when a study like this is released, doctors and scientists rushed to speculate what the change in numbers is all about. Some attribute the increase to a newer awareness in lower income families and minority groups who have previously been under-diagnosed. Others suggest that the change may be due to environmental factors, including vaccines – although this theory has been largely disputed and the original research tying vaccines to autism is now known to have been based on “bad science”. Finally, others wonder if the increase in diagnosed individuals is not indicative of a rise in the incidence of autism, but rather in increase in the awareness of doctors, therapist and parents who recognize less obvious behaviors as attributable to a spectrum disorder.

For those high-functioning kids that we know and love (Asperger’s, NLD, PDD-NOS, HFA), we definitely feel that the rise in diagnoses is at least partially due to a better understanding of these conditions. Asperger’s, for example, is a fairly new diagnosis. Many individuals were just thought of as “quirky” or “eccentric” until the mid-90s when the Asperger’s diagnosis really took hold in the US. Now, it seems as though Asperger’s is everywhere – books, movies, the news, etc. I know from our campers that being a member of this fairly new “tribe” has been somewhat of an awakening for them. They are happy to feel a part of a group – an experience that is not always familiar to them.

Regardless of why more individuals are being diagnosed, we are happy to see that there is more awareness and that people are talking about the Autism Spectrum. I turned on NPR the other day and quickly realized the segment was about ASD. A gentleman in his 60s called in and said that he was diagnosed with Asperger’s in his 50s and having the diagnosis was such a relief. He now understood why he was the way he was. It gave him some comfort. If that’s the case for many other individuals with AS, then perhaps this rise is a positive: more self-awareness, pride and connection for those on the spectrum and more public understanding, advocacy and appreciation for the “Aspies” among us!

— Debbie