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NMSU camp provides fun, safe place for children with autism

Summer camps provide wonderful memories for the children who get to experience them, but not all receive the opportunity to attend camp. New Mexico State University helped combat this problem in June with Camp New Amigos, a summer camp for children with autism.

A Camp New Amigos participant receives assistance from a camp counselor during one of the event's arts and crafts sessions. (NMSU photo by Margaret Kovar)

This is the second year the camp has been held, with 34 children, ranging in age from five to 14 years old, from around the southern region of New Mexico and El Paso participating.

Campers were divided according to age into groups of three to four campers, with a minimum of two counselors per group. There were seven typical peers who also attended the camp. These youth served as role models for the other participants and helped initiate social interactions.

Like the camp name suggests, emphasis was placed on having fun and making friends. Campers were kept busy with numerous activities throughout the weeklong camp, including horseback riding, swimming, arts and crafts and music.

"There really isn't a lot for children with autism to do during the summer, so we wanted to provide a fun, safe place for them to play. There really isn't anything else like it in southern New Mexico," said Kathleen Cronin, assistant professor of special education and communication disorders.

The camp was a collaborative effort between NMSU and the Mariposa Autism Services Center. Funding came from the HeARTS for Autism Community Fund, and many of the camp counselors were volunteers. Some were doctoral students in the special education department in NMSU's College of Education, while others were Las Cruces Public School teachers. Students receiving the New Mexico Preparing Autism Spectrum Specialists grant also volunteered.

"We had fabulous volunteer students and counselors," Cronin said. "They were such an important piece of the program."

Parents were allowed to visit and take photos during the many activities, but were not allowed to stay for the entire camp, to give participants the opportunity to socialize with their peers.

According to Cronin, social interactions are one of the core deficit areas for children with autism. They generally do not engage in parallel or imitative play or initiate social interactions, so camp activities were designed to encourage social interaction between all of the participants.

"We were not 'teaching' social interactions, but they were a definite by-product of the activities and facilitation of the counselors," Cronin said.

Cronin's research interests include the reading and social skills of children with autism. She recently received a grant, the NM-PASS, mentioned above, to train autism specialists.

Next year, the camp may be extended to allow for a greater age range to attend. For more information about next year's camp, contact Cronin at 575-646-2402.