The Beyond Akeela Circular Spring edition is here! For an intro to Aaron Schultz (our Beyond Akeela Head Counselor), important information about camp forms, itinerary details, and other reminders to get everyone in your family prepared for camp this summer, please read through this newsletter with your camper soon.
Interested in learning more about Beyond Akeela? You’re in luck! We just posted our recent Beyond Akeela virtual information session. Beyond Akeela’s director, Kevin Trimble, and Akeela co-founder, Eric Sasson, walk the audience through the Beyond Akeela experience. Everything from the big picture philosophy of the program to a day in the life of camp is covered in the 40 minute presentation.
Here’s a brief synopsis:
- Beyond Akeela was born out of a summer camp program for younger teens that Eric and Debbie help create called Camp Akeela. That is a camp that specializes and is really intentional about helping young people with Asperger’s syndrome or NLD build and maintain friendships. Beyond Akeela takes the magic and intention from that camp environment to build a program that is appropriate for pre-college teens with Asperger’s or NLD.
- Beyond Akeela blends elements of a traditional summer camp focused on social skills growth and community, a classic teen tour, and a summer college transition program with a focus on post-secondary options.
- Beyond Akeela has a home base at Lawrence University in Appleton, WI. Lawrence is a small community oriented liberal arts college, and in their summer months they don’t have any students on campus for classes. It’s a great location to work on college transition and social skills for teens with Asperger’s and NLD in the summer.
- Breakfast will always be in the campus dining hall. The food services team is great about providing options for all types of eaters at each meal. The dining hall publishes the menu in advance, so we always preview what’s available for each meal.
- After breakfast, you’ll start prepping for your day. Beyond Akeela teens have more independence and responsibility in this part of their day.
- AM Activities: see article on Beyond Akeela activities for more information o Lunch will be either at the campus dining hall, or sometimes when we travel or go out for the day, we’ll have a picnic lunch at a park.
- We try to incorporate an afternoon rest hour into our schedule as much as we can. We know that rest, especially for teens, can be really important!
- PM Activities: see article on Beyond Akeela activities for more information o Once we’ve gone through our activities for the day, it’s time for downtime around campus. Teens can make a quick trip to the health/wellness center for a workout, play a card game in the dorm lounge, or find another activity that helps them recharge.
- Most of our meals will be in the campus dining hall as a large group. There will be a couple nights during camp when teens are responsible for cooking a meal with a small group of friends. There will also be nights when we go out to eat, as a way to celebrate our success at camp.
- We’ll get together each night as a group and have a brief evening meeting. This is an important community gathering time for our group to reflect on our day together, celebrate and recognize each other’s achievements, and preview the upcoming days of camp.
- We’ll wind down our day of camp with a fun evening activity.
I recently read an article from the American Camp Association about a research organization that is measuring the social emotional learning outcomes of summer camp programs. What interested me most in reading the article was not the research about how camp helps campers develop and practice social emotional learning skills, but one specific note in the article:
Research also tells us that effective learning environments are ones where kids have a sense of physical and emotional well-being, a strong sense of belonging, and are engaged — affectively (interest, fun, enthusiasm), behaviorally (active participation), and cognitively (reflecting, making choices, having opportunities to give input) (Conner & Pope, 2013; Osterman, 2000).
In talking with parents and professionals about camp, the concept of being in a community where teens with learning differences or Asperger’s syndrome feel emotionally safe, understood, and have a sense of belonging, is one of the most important things we can provide to our campers. We truly believe in the power of finding your “tribe” as a tool to create better social emotional learning outcomes.
For teens with learning differences and Asperger’s, most of their year is spent trying to fit in communities that aren’t specifically designed for them. In school, they are given the benefit of a structured schedule, however they are among a group of teens who are more socially savvy than they are which creates an environment where they are constantly struggling to fit in. At home, they may have the benefit of being understood, but it is challenging to set up a really structured environment that our campers thrive in.
In addition, there are many college prep summer programs for teens that are soon to enter college. Many of these programs do a great job of teaching post-secondary life skills, study skills for college, vocational skills, and in some cases teens will walk away with college credit. Social activities may be included as part of the program, too. However, the structure of these activities and the peers may not be set up specifically for teens with learning differences and Asperger’s syndrome to thrive.
Insert Beyond Akeela. Beyond Akeela gives teens with learning differences and Asperger’s a community they feel a sense of ownership over and socially engaged in. There are two key components that make this happen.
- Our experienced and well trained staff understands how to facilitate connections between campers and we boast a ratio of better than 1:3 staff to camper. This allows us to build relationships with each camper and individualize our approach to their social success at camp.
- The group of campers that we bring together for the summer. Each camper comes to us fitting a similar profile, which is socially quirky teen who is academically successful, and needing additional support socially to thrive.
The socially engaging community we’ve created provides an avenue for us to foster positive social emotional learning outcomes, as well as outcomes related to post-secondary life skills, too. Our teens thrive when they know what to expect, know what is expected of them, and feel a true sense of belonging.
I recently read an article called “See the Able, Do Not Enable,” written by a member of the Life Skills Department at the College Internship Program (CIP). So much of the article resonates with our beliefs on how to support our teens with learning differences. Growing up in a nurturing home and camp community can sometimes lead teens to ask for help before thinking about how they can solve the problem on hand. There are a few great takeaways from the article.
It’s important to remember the age of the teens we are working with. Are we helping them by responding to every request for assistance? If independence is the goal, then we have to use questions from our teens as teachable moments. As a parent or counselor, we have to remind ourselves to think about how each question can turn into a teaching opportunity. At Beyond Akeela, we train our staff to scaffold their involvement in these situations to help our teens practice independence. For example, a staff member may first respond to a call for help with a guided question to help the teen find the answer to their challenge. The next time a similar situation comes up, that staff member can refer back to the previous instance and challenge the camper to think of a solution independently. The goal is to give guided feedback to the campers and help them become a better self-advocate, while not holding their hand through the process.
Another challenge that comes with this is meeting our teens on their level. Everyone learns differently, a different paces and in different styles. Many campers at Beyond Akeela have learning challenges and may benefit from creativity in how we approach teaching them. Sometimes that means adjusting our expectations for progress in mastery of a new concept, and thinking about how important what we are trying to teach actually is.
This article really hits home the benefit of camp, because camp creates opportunities for learning and succeeding independently from parents or caregivers, while also having a safety net of advisors to prevent total failure. When a teen realizes they can have success in something independently, we have noticed it greatly increases the chances they will try something new independently in the future. The more we can create situations to help our campers with learning differences be successful in independent settings, the better!
I just read an article about the affect smartphones have on our emotional intelligence and mental health from the Atlantic ( Article link). I highly recommend looking through the article. It’s a long read and won’t leave you feeling warm and fuzzy, but I feel it’s a really important read for parents and teens alike.
The overarching theme of the article is that the use of smartphones is causing more loneliness in teens and less face-to-face interaction. While teens in theory are more connected now more than ever because of their phones, they report feeling more left out too. They are finding it hard to connect with peers in person after their on screen interactions. There is obviously a huge disconnect in this case. The article also notes that the biggest effect is shown in teenage girls.
The exorbitant use of cell phones by teens is also resulting in less independent teenagers. That does not necessarily mean teens are spending more time with their families, but rather spending more time in their rooms connecting with others through their phones. Results of this include a drop in dating rates, and also a drop in driver’s licenses obtained by of age teenagers. Teens are not being set up for success in their adulthood through their phones.
The challenges smart phones present to the generation the author dubs, “iGen” are only magnified for teens on the autism spectrum or with a learning difference. These teens already struggle to navigate in-person social situations inherently, and their phones are not necessarily helping them long term. Limiting screen time is an important thing to consider for anyone, and that can be especially true for teens with Asperger’s syndrome. While it may be a difficult task to remove a boy or girl addicted to their screen from that very thing, it is an important step to help them become happier and more independent people.
The Beyond Akeela teen summer transition program that works on post-secondary life skills places an emphasis on removing screens from the social experience of our teens. We tell our camp families and teens that it’s really hard to make a friend through a screen, and this article certainly does a good job of explaining why that is!
The other night I had the pleasure of viewing a webinar led by a mother and her young adult son with Asperger’s syndrome about building independence for teens on the autism spectrum. The webinar was hosted by the Autism and Asperger’s Network (AANE), a great resource for families with teens with autism spectrum disorder. It was interesting to hear the journey of the young man from his elementary years to his adulthood and how he and his family worked on his independent living skills. Two of the major points the mother and her son made about building these skills were the importance of self-advocacy and the difference between independence and interdependence. As I recently wrote about the importance of self-advocacy, I thought I’d focus more of the independence vs. interdependence concept in this blog.
Much of the focus for teens on the autism spectrum is building independent living skills so they can live on their own after high school, whether that be in a college setting or in the “real world.” For people with Asperger’s syndrome who can be very black and white thinkers, the word independent can be mean something that we don’t intend for it to mean. For the specific young man hosting the webinar, independent meant fully independent. He became anxious thinking that he would have to do all these new learned skills on his own without any support. He didn’t realize that being independent does not mean that you cannot ask for support when needed. His mother made it clear that the word interdependent helped her son realize that he could still be an independent person while also asking for help when he needed it.
The discrepancy between independence and interdependence really struck me during the webinar. It made me think about my own life, along with all my peers, family, and colleagues, and realize that we are all interdependent, and not truly independent. We all seek out support during various times in our lives because we’re able to advocate for ourselves. This young man’s understanding that it’s okay to be interdependent allowed him to be a stronger self-advocate. which is quite possibly the most valuable skill young people with autism need to develop to have successful and independent adult lives.
For many teens with high functioning autism (formerly Asperger’s syndrome), getting into college is the easy part. Good grades are not often that challenging to come by and services are often provided as part of a 504 or IEP, as mandated by the school district. Enter college. The transition to college proves to be a trickier task to master for most students with Asperger’s or non-verbal learning differences. A recent article on NPR titled “Navigating life on campus when you’re on the autism spectrum” brought forth suggestions and sparked new ideas on how to make this transition successfully. Here are a couple notes that we took away:
1) Find your “Tribe”:
So much of finding our place in the world hinges on the ability to find a community of peers we can call our “tribe.” This is a group of people we can identify with, have similar personality traits to, and share similar interests with. Having this sense of identity and community can go a long to build confidence and lessen anxiety and depression that may accompany a young person on the autism spectrum in college. It can further lead to mentorship as we find someone who we can relate to and has similar life experiences to us. In this story, Elizabeth is able to provide insightful advice to James because she had gone through what James is navigating in his early college years.
This is evident in the article when Elizabeth discusses the teacher who helped her find a group to work with. This was an accommodation that Elizabeth advocated for because she knew that she’d need help with something like this. The better able we are to understand our own needs, the better we will be able to ask for help to support those needs. Understanding that we have challenges in certain areas is a good thing, as it allows other people in our communities to give us the support we need. This is an essential skill to practice to teens with Asperger’s syndrome.
What is self-advocacy? There are many definitions out there, and we think it all boils down to being able to make independent decisions and to ask for resources that are needed for success. For a child or teen on the autism spectrum or with Asperger’s syndrome, this is a skill that is essential for successful independent living. For many students with ASD, their parents do most of the advocacy for them throughout their pre-college years. This includes advocating for their Individualized Education Program, helping them plan social events, and assisting with basic decision making around the house. Much of this is done out of necessity, as any young person would need help determining what type of individualized support they need for a successful education. It is important, though, for families to help their children become better advocates for themselves for their transition to life after high school.
Why is self-advocacy important for teens on the autism spectrum? When entering college or the workforce, college representatives and employers will no longer be responsive to parents of teens, because they are not required to. In some cases, there are legal reasons that a college cannot communicate with parents about services provided to a student on campus with ASD. Having the skill to share with student services or an employer what sort of accommodations are imperative to successfully navigating life in college or a new job. Many services and supports are given to our teens prior to entering their post-secondary lives. An understanding of how to advocate for similar services and make decisions in a more independent manner is a skill teens with autism should be working on from a young age to help with their transition to post-secondary life.
How do you teach self-advocacy? Practice makes perfect. The more opportunities a young person has to advocate for themselves, the more natural it becomes and the better at it they get. Allowing young people to have a say in their class or camp schedule, encouraging them to choose a restaurant for a family dinner… these are different examples of opportunities you can give teens with Asperger’s syndrome to help them practice self-advocacy. Some students might be better able to succeed in developing this skill if you start off by giving them choices. For example, “Between these three options of a movie to go see tonight, which one do YOU want to go see?” It is important that you set teens up for success in making these decisions, and provide them support as they make the decision, and after the consequences of the event have occurred.
I was recently referred to an article about the prevalence of mental health issues within the autism community. You can find a link to the article here: NPR Article. While I was struck, though not necessarily surprised, at the increased likelihood an individual on the autism spectrum will have a psychiatric diagnosis as compared with typically developing persons, I was also interested in the discussion about the transition from high school to college and beyond for teens on the autism spectrum.
Teens on Autism Spectrum
There are a whole new set of rules and obstacles that everyone learns and faces when entering college. We all are challenged to be more independent in many facets of our life, including navigating a new social space, maintaining basic living skills like cooking for ourselves, and balancing an often daunting workload from classes. As many of us know, this is a challenging transition for anyone to make regardless of a diagnosis they may or may not have. The difficulty of this transition to college is magnified for a teen on the autism spectrum. Learning new social rules requires more practice, and the obstacles faced can feel much larger than they might to a typically developing teen.
One of the quotes from that resonates with what we believe in here at camp is, “Youth on the autism spectrum may need repetitive modeling and experiences so that they get those skills down and become as independent as possible…” Our goal with Beyond Akeela is to give our teens on the autism spectrum as much exposure to these new experiences as we can. This gives them the space to practice these new skills in a safe environment, with the support of adult advisors and also their peers. Something as simple as navigating a relationship with an assigned roommate takes practice and Beyond Akeela, a college prep program for teens on the autism spectrum, gives them the space to practice that skill.
The transition to college for young people with autism is a challenging one, and as an organization we are happy to see articles like this one being written about transitions more often. We are also proud to be an organization that provides a place for teens to prepare for their transition to college in a safe and fun environment.
Beyond Akeela Teen Travel Tour moves to Wisconsin
The onset of Fall offers a time of reflection for us here in our home office away from camp. It gives us time to think back on the successes of the past summer, and also hear from our campers and their parents how we can continue to grow as a community. Our reflection on Beyond Akeela this year is especially important after our first year running the program in the Midwest. The transition program for teens with NVLD was a great success in year one, and we are so excited to get started planning the second summer in Wisconsin.
Here are some of the highlights from our first summer in Wisconsin:
College Readiness: We utilized resources of being on a college campus to help our teens prep for life in college. This included living on a college campus and activities with the health and wellness team, career center, and student services. All of these dynamic activities gave our teens a better glimpse of college life.
Chicago: Our campers had a chance to see much of the popular city in the Midwest! The group went on walking tours, spent time at various museums including the Shedd Aquarium, and got to view the whole city from the Sky Deck to close out their time in the city. Campers also took time to plan their activities in Chicago, and handled all logistics including their transportation and food. While enjoying a beautiful city, our teens with high functioning ASD also worked on their executive functioning skills.
Community Service: Our choice community service program was a huge hit! We were so impressed with our teens for jumping right into community service work and thriving in it. Community sponsors echoed how much of a pleasure it was to work with our groups. Beyond Akeela teens were given the choice to select a community service option that interested them, and committed to that service on four separate occasions. Not only was this a great way to give back to our community, but also an opportunity for quirky teens to practice their interpersonal skills in a workplace-like setting.
Ropes Course and White Water Rafting: Our adventure seekers got their adrenaline pumping on the high ropes course and our white water rafting excursion. Campers were encouraged to step out of their comfort zones, and walked away with a new sense of confidence and self-awareness.