CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo., June 25, 2015 – A group of Southeast Missouri State University students are serving as counselors at Camp Connect this summer, a three-week event for children with autism to improve their social and communication skills.
Based at Southeast’s Autism Center for Diagnosis and Treatment, a typical camp day finds excitement buzzing in the air as children with autism at the camp create flower pots, T-shirts, picture frames and other crafts with their neurotypical peers. Other children play videogames on the Xbox 360 and Wii. Others head out and play on the playground. At each child’s side is a Southeast student pursuing a certificate or minor in Autism Studies. Amanda Bomar of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, Heather Roe of Advance, Missouri, and Katie Spradling of Desloge, Missouri, along with their fellow classmates, are camp counselors.
“We encourage interaction with others,” said Dr. Nancy Aguinaga, a Southeast associate professor who teaches classes in the Autism Spectrum Disorder Certificate program and is the director of Camp Connect.
The camp features events based at the Autism Center, such as life skills activities, along with outreach and social events extending into the community, including swimming at Cape Splash, floating on the lazy river, bowling at West Park Lanes and watching movies at Cape West 14.
Southeast students are heavily involved in the events.
“They get a rich experience seeing different levels of abilities,” Aguinaga said.
Bomar is pursuing a Master of Arts in Elementary Education from Southeast, teaches in Sikeston, and has worked with young children just diagnosed with autism, or students who have been diagnosed with autism as they entered kindergarten.
“[Camp] has helped me grow as a teacher ,” Bomar said, adding she has been given an opportunity to work with older students as well as younger students. “It’s more tools in my toolbox.”
During camp, she has worked with a teenager diagnosed with autism and his typically developing niece, who attends the camp with him as his peer buddy. She uses an iPad to communicate with him, showing him pictures with options so he can make choices about what he would like to do. She says facilitating communication is important when working with some children with autism.
“Some days are good days, and some days are bad days,” Bomar says.
Bomar became interested in working with children with special needs when her cousin was diagnosed with special needs as a toddler.
Bomar says she enjoys “just getting to know different kids and situations and help them be more involved in society. I like getting to meet kids,” she added.
Spradling, a junior who is pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education with a specialization in exceptional child education, says counselors are assigned to specific groups and then paired with a child with whom to work. She worked with the same child for an entire week.
“I’ve enjoyed seeing them get to open up as we’ve been with them,” Spradling said. “This one little boy doesn’t really talk. Then he told a joke out of nowhere and has been talking a lot. It’s been cool to see him open up to me.”
Working at Camp Connect has helped her improve her skills and expand her resume, as well as communicate with and interact with a variety of children.
“You get to see different situations that come up,” Katie says.
Spradling said she became interested in teaching children with special needs after babysitting a child with Down syndrome. She says she wants to find a teaching job in a special education classroom working with children with special needs after she graduates from Southeast.
Heather Roe, who earned a bachelor’s degree in social work, has been teaching in schools for 14 years and six years in early childhood special education. She became interested in working with students with autism after she had two children diagnosed with autism in one of her fourth grade classrooms. She also had two special needs children in her early childhood classroom with whom she worked until they were in second grade. She says it was both challenging and beneficial.
“It’s a learning experience for me,” Roe said.
She is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in exceptional child education with an emphasis in autism and plans to continue to working with elementary children.
“I just love it,” Roe said.
She says she enjoys interacting with the students in the camp, meeting each day’s challenge. In addition, interacting with other camp counselors and staff has helped her grow as well.
“I try to get campers to interact with one another, to help with their socialization and communication skills, and build relationships with other peers. We also take them on outings to help them,” she said. “It’s very beneficial to my teaching.”
Children who have been diagnosed with autism often have difficulty in social environments and communicating with others.
“Small steps count. Small steps are our big game,” Roe said. “There’s a saying, ‘When you know one child with autism, you know one child with autism.’ Every child is different. A child saying ‘Can I play with you?’ is a step in the right direction for these children.”