Hey guys, wait for me!

A group of Camp Kindred campers heads back to the main lodge after some time at the waterfront. One is a little slower to get on his shoes and calls out to the rest, “Hey guys, wait for me.” The kids turn and look back, and pause until their friend can join them….

This would be a perfectly ordinary occurrence at most summer camps. No one would give it a thought. But for the staff at Camp Kindred and for the campers’ parents, this small interaction was nearly miraculous and perfectly revealing.

Miraculous because these campers, “tweeners” with Asperger’s disorder or non-verbal learning disability, for the most part have NEVER felt themselves to be part of an informal social group such as this.

“Hey guys, wait for me.” This simple language tells us that this boy felt that he belonged to a group of peers and wanted to stay a part of it, no, expected to stay part of it.

Miraculous also because he immediately and spontaneously took effective action to maintain his connection to his group of friends, and was successful. “Spontaneous initiation of social repair” – to use the lingo – this is a key deficit in kids with ASD. They rarely are spontaneously social. They rarely initiate social interaction. They rarely repair breakdowns in communication and connection.

“Hey guys, wait for me.” This is revealing because this everyday social experience would never had occurred had this same boy been part of a typical summer camp for typically developing peers.

I don’t know if I should eat it, or frame it.

Our final-day picnic for campers and their families was revealing also. The kids worked together in the morning, collaborating in small groups, to create a scavenger hunt that would be done with their families in the afternoon. During the scavenger hunt, there was a buzz of excited activity as small groups of campers and their siblings and parents made the rounds trying to decipher the clues; they did so in small coherent bunches, with very few stragglers or “outliers”. The small groups of families were working together, having fun!

After the picnic lunch, one counselor headed to the volleyball net with a beach ball and one or two campers. They started playing a game of beach ball volleyball and were immediately joined by 7 or 8 other campers – spontaneously and at their own initiative. Once that game ended, some other campers, again spontaneously and at their own initiative, got out our large parachute and started playing some group parachute games they had learned at Camp Kindred with their siblings. Twice more then, a bunch of kids having fun together. Kids with

One more anecdote: One camper, without being asked, made a ‘smore for his mother. She commented that he had never done anything like that before. She said she was so delighted that she “didn’t know whether to frame it or eat it.”

The lessons of Camp Kindred

There are several important lessons here. One is that social success leads to social pleasure and to a joyful, even easy, sense of connection and belonging, and then, most importantly to a motivation to develop and maintain that connection. (In my experience, the single most important barrier to social development among this group is the lack of motivation to interact, evident in the lack of social initiation.)

At Camp Kindred, we did not provide instruction or lessons on how to interact, nor did we use behavioral or other means to motivate interaction. We did not script, we did not prompt, we did not role-play or practice interactions.

Instead, what we did was to make a social environment in which it was possible to connect (relatively quiet, relatively small numbers of peers, relatively leisurely pace to activities, and relatively simple activities that were easy to master) and provide a scaffold of activities in which it was necessary and enjoyable to connect.

Second, our experience at Camp Kindred suggests clearly that it is a mistake to focus exclusively on inclusion experiences if you wish to facilitate social development for kids on the autism spectrum with social challenges. Like every other spontaneously emerging social grouping, these kids connected at Camp Kindred because they shared common interests, common styles, a common pace, and came to have experiences and hold memories in common.

I have been saying for many years that we should think of inclusion as a psychological concept: kids are included not when their body is in the same physical space as the bodies of age matched peers, but when they feel as if they belong to a group of peers who value and appreciate them for who they are. Our experience at Camp Kindred illustrated this again.

This was a camp solely of kids with special needs. And I am absolutely certain that they felt more included than they had ever felt before in a group of 12 peers.

The NeuroDevelopment Center will work to maintain the connections among kids that flourished at Camp Kindred. Each camper received a camp album with pictures of each camper (usually grinning, in silly hats) and of the camp activities. We will coordinate email exchange among campers, and perhaps moderate an online chat for campers from our website. We plan to hold a camp reunion and perhaps a number of regular informal get togethers so that these friends can “hang out” together as our older adolescent group does each month at the center.

Based on the feedback we obtained from parents, we plan to lengthen the camp to three weeks next summer. We will probably include other age groups as well so that Camp Kindred runs all summer long.

One mother wrote on her evaluation form that “Camp Kindred was possibly the best experience in my daughter’s life.” It was an enormously satisfying experience for the staff as well. Already we can’t wait until next summer…..