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July 12, 2011
CONTACT: Gordon Ovenshine:

Camp R.O.C.K. helps teens with autism improve skills

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. ­– A 14-year-old boy with autism who once refused to go fishing with anyone, including his father, experienced a breakthrough at Slippery Rock University’s Camp R.O.C.K. (Recreational Opportunities Connecting Kids).
      “When he went fishing with us, alongside his peers, it was very successful,” said Jesse Solomon, a Slippery Rock University adapted physical activity graduate student and camp director from Pittsburgh. “He caught a big bass.”
      In launching Camp R.O.C.K., SRU introduced its first camp targeting young people with autism. SRU has been a long-time leader in disability education and engagement, but the new initiative specifically addresses the challenges of autism, with a focus on helping young people achieve independence through improved social skills leading to employment.
       The day camp, offered in June, provided swimming, tennis, fishing, Zumba, horseback riding, boating, music and life-skills training for 32 youth ages 14-21. Most of the events were offered on campus, with field trips to Moraine State Park and local hiking trails.
        SRU received a $131,402 grant from the U.S. Department of Education Rehabilitation Services Administration to introduce the camp. The federal agency provides grants for programs that help people with disabilities.
       Solomon, who developed the camp with Betsy Kemeny, SRU instructor of physical education, said peer engagement often helps those with autism overcome social and behavioral problems.
      “The camp introduced youth to a variety of lifelong physical activities while building recreational and social skills,” Solomon said. “The mission is providing opportunities for adolescents with autism spectrum disorder of all ability levels to develop health and wellness, socialization, sensory integration, mobility and communication skills while asserting their independence in a fun and social environment.”
       Autism is a neurological disorder characterized by impaired communication and social interaction. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one of every 100 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with autism. Autism, Asperger syndrome and pervasive developmental disorder are the three disorders in the autism spectrum.
      Solomon said autism is the type of disorder where a teenager might have the intellectual capacity for solving algebra problems but doesn’t understand a “thumbs up” sign.
      Camp R.O.C.K. events offered positive re-enforcement to show participants that they could be challenged and affirmed. Campers were congratulated when they reached the top of the rock wall in the Robert N. Aebersold Student Recreation Center; swimming activities included ball throws and laughter; campers tried their hand at the ropes course near the Ski Lodge; and they skipped rocks and explored Wolf Creek Nature Area together.
     “The activities allowed campers to achieve a level of success and self-efficiency that they had never experienced from traditional team sports because of the nature of their disability,” Solomon said. “Sensory stimulation is often critical for individuals with autism.”
      Solomon, who received her undergraduate degree in special education from SRU in 2007, said she worked as an autism support teacher in suburban Pittsburgh before enrolling in SRU’s graduate program in adapted physical activity.
       “My goal is to teach both body and mind. It is important to learn to read and write, but if their mind isn’t developing the same as their body, I see a huge barrier in terms of their overall development.”
     She said the 14-year-old boy has since gone fishing with his father. “When we asked him what his favorite event was during Camp R.O.C.K., he said, ‘fishing,’” she said.
      Camp R.O.C.K. underscores the broad reach of SRU’s adapted physical education undergraduate and graduate programs. SRU offers 13 programs helping children and adults with disabilities, including  “I Can Do It, You Can Do It” and “Kids in Action.” The programs promote healthy lifestyles and quality of life for people with disabilities and provide students with career training opportunities.
      Kemeny said Camp R.O.C.K. helped participants in high school “get ready for life.” Groups gathered for circle time after each event. They talked about and demonstrated shaking hands, common gestures and other social interaction skills, she said. A cookout provided the opportunity for teaching manners and proper eating behaviors.
       Other topics covered during the camp included reading, social media and proper nutrition. “We focused on life-oriented skills building, not sports,” Kemeny said.
     Kemeny said those with autism are capable of holding jobs. Jobs for those with good visual skills include auto mechanic, building maintenance, animal training or factory work. People with poor verbal skills can find jobs re-shelving library books, stocking retail or grocery stores or working as custodians.
        Kemeny said campers had a great time. “On the last day of camp, we asked them what their favorite thing about camp was,” she said. “We also asked them to take pictures. The photography was the way they were able to capture what they were enthusiastic about. They liked a variety of things, including the high ropes courses.”

Slippery Rock University is Pennsylvania’s premier public residential university. Slippery Rock University provides students with a comprehensive learning experience that intentionally combines academic instruction with enhanced educational and learning opportunities that make a positive difference in their lives.