Camp iCAN engages autistic students
in summertime activities
Written by Isabel A. Rodriguez Photography courtesy of Camp iCAN
Kids with autism might sometimes learn a little differently than their peers, but a group of Las Cruces parents and educators are trying to make sure that those differences don’t get in the way of their summertime activities.
As educators in autism and special education, Marisa Cano, Morgan Harding, and Laura Luna understand that finding summertime activities can be challenging. Backed by the support of Hearts for Autism —a nonprofit that provides services and support to families affected by autism—the three women co-created Camp iCAN to help kids with autism participate in local summer camps they might otherwise not have access to.
“Even though there were camps designed especially for autistic children, we noticed that some of our kids needed more of an inclusive environment to be part of summer camps that were already going on in Las Cruces,” says Morgan, Las Cruces Public Schools autism specialist.
Camp iCAN partners with Doña Ana County’s Kids Kollege, a summer program that offers short courses on a variety of topics from cooking and baking to animation and video game design. Marisa says the 2018 program is called STEAM and will have “more exciting options and extended hours.”
“The framework is that there’s a typical camp with students in it and we put in two or three of our children with autism,” explains Marisa, Hearts for Autism board coordinator and parent liaison, and mother of two children with autism. “Our overall goal was for them to make friends. Then we looked at what social skills were needed: Do they use people’s names in context of the sentence?
Do they know personal boundaries? They did really well last year. They enjoyed the experience.”
She adds that some parents were initially nervous about their kids’ participation, but by the end of the summer during the students’ show-and-tell segment, they were convinced of the camps’ success as students proudly showed off the work they’d completed.
“As a parent, I learned how important it is for my son to have recreational opportunities throughout the year, how important it is for him to be with peers and with people who understand him,” Marisa says. “You can find people who are willing to work with you.”
A counselor attends each course to ensure students feel comfortable in the camp environment and to provide additional assistance as needed.
“It’s the adults in the environment that set the tone. If they just move along and don’t fixate on it, the kids will tend to be very accepting,” Morgan notes.
Marisa says she was happy to see stereotypes being broken as a result of the welcoming environment. Autism is often associated with anti-social skills such as screaming, but that’s not always the case, as students and teachers learned.
“We wanted to stop isolating children with autism from their peers,” Laura adds. “It’s helping them be part of the community and showing them that they can go to camp like anyone else. All camps have their value and worth, but our platform is about inclusivity.”
Morgan credits the camp instructors for helping create a memorable experience for students, as well their in-depth knowledge of the subjects they teach.
“Our kids connect with them,” she notes. “They felt like they could relate to the teachers. They knew the components of whatever content they were presenting. It was a great collaboration.”
Laura points out that many students emerge from the summer camp more confident, as the inclusive environment helps instill in them a sense of independence. She even had one student go from her classroom to a general education classroom the following school year.
In addition to helping coordinate the camp, Hearts for Autism provides several scholarships for students to attend the courses.
Last year, autistic children had the opportunity to participate in the Las Cruces Running Club youth camp, where they trained to run a mile. Some parents even enrolled their children in activities outside of Camp iCan— something Laura is thrilled about. It means, after all, that Camp iCan is accomplishing its goals.
“Look at their abilities rather than their disabilities,” Morgan advises parents. There might be some initial fear in encouraging kids to step outside their comfort zone, but it’s a learning experience and provides an opportunity to grow. “Don’t give up, or allow yourself to get discouraged by a bad experience.”