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One-of-a-Kind Camp: Raleigh News and Observer

One-of-a-Kind Camp: Raleigh News and Observer

One-of-a-Kind Camp
by Sara Mansur
Raleigh News and Observer
June 22, 2012

During transition time in the campers’ cabin before suiting up for swimming Friday, June 22, 2012, Camp Royall counselor Michelle Scatamacchia makes sure she has some time for quiet, lingering hugs with her camper John Napoles, 7. Napoles was one of thirty five child-aged campers attending the Autism Society of North Carolina’s Camp Royall week 3 June 18-22, 2012 near Pittsboro.

Paul Banks caught five fish during his stay at Camp Royall in southern Chatham County.

Like other 11-year-old boys at camp, he spent most of his week swimming, boating and meeting new friends.

But Camp Royall isn’t the typical summer camp. Banks and this week’s 35 other campers all have varying degrees of autism.

At Camp Royall, the kids get to bunk in cabins and take nature walks in the woods. But each activity caters to their individual needs.

Almost every spot has clear instructions for the campers who need structured visual stimulation. Each cubby in the arts and crafts room has a list of directions with pictures: do group work, do individual work, wash hands.

And a sensory room with dim lighting offers calming music and vibrating chairs to relax kids who may be overstimulated.

“Sometimes, it’s hard for the kids to understand what’s expected of them,” said Sara Gage, program director at Camp Royall. “But the visual structure helps them to understand.”

Autism is a brain disorder that affects communication, social interaction and behavior. Gage said the disorder makes it difficult for individuals to interact with others and understand non-verbal communication.

Camp Royall, which was founded in 1997 by the Autism Society of N.C., is the nation’s oldest and largest summer camp program for people on the autism spectrum. The 10-week summer program offers weeklong stays to 35 campers. This year, the first two weeks of the camp housed adults with autism.

The 133-acre camp is the only one in the state that exclusively serves North Carolina residents on the autism spectrum. It will host 350 people this summer but received more than 500 applications, said Tracey Sheriff, CEO of the autism society. A lottery chooses the campers, and families that can’t afford the full $1,600 fee can apply for financial assistance. This summer, the camp had $125,000 available.

Bright green eyes

Camp Royall accepts people with varying degrees of autism. Banks responds to questions in only a few words, and he usually keeps his bright green eyes focused on whomever he is talking to.

What does he like about Camp Royall?

“I meet kids just like me.”

To an outsider, he seems like just another shy sixth-grader.

“For some of our campers, it can be really hard to build friendships and social skills,” Gage said. “But this is a great place for them to celebrate who they are.”

The 1-1, or 1-2 camper to counselor ratio provides personalized care for the entire week stay. Ray Evernham, former NASCAR team owner and ASNC board member, said the ratio leads to more effective communication between camper and counselor.

“The camp provides the type of communication that children on the autism spectrum need,” said Evernham, whose 20-year-old son, Ray J, was diagnosed with a form of autism.

The cabin environment encourages social interaction by having up to six campers sleeping in the same room. But each cabin has private rooms for campers who can’t handle the constant socializing.

Even the dining hall, which resembles a typical camp cafeteria, has private rooms for those who need to eat by themselves.

The instruction signs and quiet room are not for all the campers. But these adjustments allow Camp Royall to accept people from across the spectrum.

“We are able to accommodate campers with all kinds of needs,” said Bank’s counselor, Dani Wayman. “We don’t choose campers according to high or low functioning.”

At the end of their stay, campers participate in a talent show and counselors give their child a unique award.

Parents, staff and campers filled the bleachers Friday and watched each kid do a different act. Some told jokes, others played instruments or sang songs. Each received a standing ovation.

When his turn came, Banks showed off his martial arts skills. He even wore his white karate uniform with his yellow belt.

Wayman gave him the Renaissance man award because she said he did nearly all the activities at the camp, and did them all well. Both camper and counselor hope to make it back next year.

“It’s just one big family here,” Wayman said.