Jun 04, 2012 0 Share

Extreme Sports Camp: Learning in Action

Instructor teaching student to ski.
Photo courtesy of Extreme Sports Camp

Sedentary lifestyles. Hours spent staring at a screen each day. Obesity and obesity-related health conditions. These are “typical” problems for most Americans these days, and individuals with developmental disabilities often suffer most of all from the nation's dwindling level of healthy physical activity. With constant decreases in programmatic and governmental funding, individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities have fewer and fewer opportunities to exert themselves and test their athletic abilities in a fun, safe, and supportive environment. 

Enter Extreme Sports Camp, located in the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. The organization is dedicated to giving individuals on the spectrum the chance to participate in sports and experience the outdoors. In the words of Sallie Bernard, the camp's founder, “Our kids and adults [on the spectrum] are so prone to sitting indoors, in rooms, and they are missing out on something that should be a part of everyone's life: Activity Based Learning, or ABL … it's all about learning actively, as opposed to sitting at a desk.” At Extreme Sports Camp, every day is filled with indoor and outdoor activity, a dramatic contrast to “everyday” life that keeps individuals with autism and their families coming back year after year. 

Founding Story 

Bernard was motivated to begin the program because she saw a distinct lack of opportunities for her autistic son, Bill, to go to summer camp and participate in sports. Bill's neurotypical siblings loved camp, and Sallie couldn't help but desire a comparable experience for him. As she says, “I saw the value of my other kids going off to camp, and felt my son Bill should have that opportunity.” When the family relocated from New Jersey to Colorado, Bernard saw her chance. In her words, “I liked how people got outside here and prioritized outdoor sports. And so, with my son's skiing instructor, we just started to do something [with individuals on the spectrum]: a weeklong activity program, which started in 2001.” Bill is now 24, and Extreme Sports Camp has expanded beyond her initial imaginings. It incorporated as a nonprofit in 2004, and became an overnight camp for children, teens, and adults on the spectrum. (Individuals must be 8 years old or older to participate.) The program does not receive state funding; instead, students pay tuition, and money from private donors and grants helps to make programs more affordable for participants. (To enroll in a program, families can expect a base tuition cost of $1,100 for a five-day program, and $1950 for a five-day/six-night residential program. However, various scholarships and aid opportunities are available.) With each passing year, Extreme Sports Camp has expanded: more weeks, more kids, an adult program, winter ski programs. As Bernard puts it, “Every year, we keep building on that small first step.” 

Summer Camps and Winter Programs

Extreme Sports Camp's first year was, indeed, very small, with four participants over the course of two weeks. Initial development was a challenge, but as word spread and interest grew, program offerings expanded proportionally. Bernard observes, “This [camp] is a work in progress. We look at sports and physical fitness from an autism perspective and actually break down sports in a way that they can be accessible to someone with autism at any level.” Essentially, Extreme Sports Camp takes the progressive thinking utilized to teach individuals with autism life skills and community-based learning and applies that approach to sports. 

Bernard recalls, “When my son has been involved in sports through school programs, it was not very challenging, and it wasn't very engaging for him. It was dumbed down. I saw my son sitting on the sidelines a lot. What we do out here is figure out how analyze sports so that it can be individualized and taught to someone with autism.” Cultivating intrinsic motivation is paramount in the Extreme Sports Camp philosophy, and its staff work together to foster techniques that make their activities engaging and exciting for each participant. One of Extreme Sports Camp's goals is to set the stage for a lifelong enjoyment of sports; as Bernard says, “We really want the person to come back and do [the sporting activity] again!”  

It seems that the camp has made a success of that goal, as their enrollment numbers speak for themselves. In the summer months, Extreme Sports Camp hosts nine week-long sessions, as well as a training week for staff. While each of the nine weeks has 21 slots available for individuals on the spectrum, many choose to register for multiple weeklong sessions, so although the camp has the capacity to host 189 individuals on the spectrum, the total number of individuals served is less than that each summer. The summer sleep-away camp is based at the Spring Valley Campus of Colorado Mountain College. Summer activities offered for the 2012 year include a wide variety of lake and river sports, such as wakeboarding and kayaking, as well as activities like climbing, yoga, caving, and therapeutic dance and drumming. The winter session is smaller, with six sessions, and seven participants welcomed to each session. Since the winter program is less extensive, Extreme Sports Camp also offers ski instruction and buddies to pair up and ski with participants on the spectrum throughout the winter ski season. 

Challenges and Supports 

As my brother Willie is a young man on the autism spectrum, Extreme Sports Camp sounds like a dream come true for families. Yet even so, I wonder: What about challenging behaviors in campers? What about how stressful it can be for individuals to try new things, live communally with strangers, and spend a week or more away from home? Is this a setup for some possibly epic meltdowns? When I voice my fears and ask Bernard my questions, she speaks in the voice of a woman who has comforted and reassured many a concerned parent. In her words, “Every participant has their own unique set of challenges. [For example], there may be someone who is very high-functioning from a cognitive perspective, but they may have emotional issues and anxiety. We try to be preemptive, scanning for signs of something that may be ‘coming up’ for a participant.” Counselors who serve as program staff are trained to watch for warning signs and monitor camp participants for conditions such as overheating, hydration, fatigue, and sensory overload. Moreover, Extreme Sports Camp seeks to offer as much support to each participant as possible. Their staffing ratio is 1:1, and individuals participate in all of their activities in teams with a supervisor present, so that 2:1 support may be available as needed. The staff is trained in each individual's Behavior Support Plan, as well as in the basics of behavioral support. In addition, staff members utilize supports such as sensory toys, social stories, calendars, and schedules to facilitate learning and minimize camper anxiety. All Extreme Sports Camp activities are located within 25 minutes of a hospital at all times, and the staff is trained in basic First Aid and CPR as well. 

Given the week of training and preparation that staff members need in order to effectively support program participants, Bernard mentions securing sufficient, caring employees as an ongoing challenge. However, Extreme Sports Camp does have senior staff, all of whom have a strong experience base with autism as well as with various sporting activities involved in the camp. The camp also relies on the expertise of Diane Osaki, an Occupational Therapist and consultant who oversees areas such as staff training and programmatic safety. Furthermore, each camper is required to submit an extensive information packet, where parents or caregivers outline the individual's needs in detail. These needs might include Behavioral Support Plans, dietary needs (gluten and casein-free dietary options are always available), athletic ability, sleep patterns, and medication lists. This information, along with phone contact with parents and caregivers (which is ongoing throughout the camp session), allows staff to provide the most specialized supports possible for each camper. 

The level of commitment required from the program staff is tremendous, but not without reward. Bernard says, “The feedback that we get is that it has been transformative [for staff]. It's a lot of work, and they really feel it, but … It's like childbirth; once it's over they're like, 'It was an amazing experience!'” Bernard cites examples of staff members who have participated as camp counselors and gone on to specialize in autism studies within their respective professions. As she says, “It's really neat how many people come in and say, 'Wow these kids can really do a lot of cool things.' It gives them a new perspective, and, if they are going to work with an autism population, it raises the bar in their minds as to what someone with autism can really do.” 

Likewise, participating in programs such as Extreme Sports Camp allows individuals with autism themselves to get a new sense of their own capabilities. “When [an individual] is able to do a sport at whatever level, [they are] working in a zone of achievement, and ... it fosters this sense of confidence and competence,” notes Bernard. In a similar vein, being away from home overnight can promote personal growth. “The 'typical' community has known for decades that [summer camp] fosters independence and maturity,” says Bernard. “I was very surprised when my son went to camp for a week. I was crying, but he loved it; he never missed us at all! And we see that over and over. The parents can be anxious, but the kids are saying 'See ya later!'” 

Bernard's words remind me of my own brother, of his intense desire for freedom. I wonder if, despite the fact that Willie loves routine, such an experience of exploration might be just what he needs. Bernard confirms: “Our kids are used to routines and patterns of behavior. When none of that is there, it can be very anxiety-provoking but also liberating. As long as you have supports in place to help [individuals] in their new setting, you can do a lot of things … that you wouldn't be able to do at home.”  

Moving Forward into the Future 

When asked if Extreme Sports Camp has an eye on expansion and if she considers the model replicable in other communities, Bernard replies with an enthusiastic “Yes! We're putting the foundation in place to allow that to happen.” At present, senior staff members are working to produce instructional manuals and videos, which outline all of Extreme Sports Camp's techniques, along with their approach to instruction. The materials will be utilized for staff training, but Extreme Sports Camp plans to allow other potential providers and families to access the manual as well. In addition, Extreme Sports Camp leadership is planning to host an autism sports symposium in the coming year. 

Finally, perhaps Extreme Sports Camp's most exciting programmatic development of all lies in their fledgling employment skills program for adults with autism. The program is slated to begin this summer, and it will allow adults with autism to gain skills and support Extreme Sports Camp programs as well. Bernard says, “Depending on their interest and ability levels, [individuals on the spectrum] will go out with the boat team, help with climbing, plan and put on parties, work in media tech … [They'll] still have counselor or job coach working with them, but they'll be learning aspects related to the business of running a camp.” If all goes well this summer, there is potential for individuals with autism to work as employees in future sessions of Extreme Sports Camp. 

It seems fitting that a program dedicated to supporting individuals with autism is opening new doors for their employment; the leadership opportunity dovetails well with the camp's mission of enhancing health and promoting personal growth of individuals on the spectrum. My brother, Willie, swims like a fish, walks faster than I do, and loves to exert himself whenever possible. I can't help but envision him at Extreme Sports Camp, showing others how to snowplow, or jumping into the lake. And for parents and caregivers across the country, such visions become reality as individuals with autism turn away from couches and computer screens and embark on Extreme Sports Camp adventures each year.