What Do Autistic Teenagers Want From Summer Transition Programs?

One of our families recently shared an article from Think College that lists overnight camps as a powerful strategy to prepare neurodivergent youth for post-secondary life. Summer transition programs can help adolescents build confidence, increase self-awareness, and foster community.

While attending camp has several benefits, we wondered what specific elements of a summer program that help neurodivergent teenagers succeed in post-secondary life. We set out to discover the answer and came across research by Emily Hotez et al. in 2018. They developed and implemented a week-long summer transition program for adolescents with autism. The researchers evaluated the program using interviews with the participants. Results demonstrated that a summer transition program for autistic teens could help teens self-advocate and engage with diverse peers in college contexts.

The program participants also had several suggestions for improving summer transition programs. Their recommendations align with our programming at Beyond Akeela. Here are the four elements that the teenagers highlighted.

Longer Programming

The participants felt more time was needed to practice the new skills they were learning. A 2.5-week program like Beyond Akeela gives teenagers the space and time to practice post-secondary skills in a supportive and engaging environment.

More Field Trips

The teenagers wished they had more opportunities to explore exciting locations independently. At Beyond Akeela, teens have numerous opportunities to go on college tours, adventure day trips, museums, and nearby towns. The teens independently explore these locations in small peer groups, exercising the skills they’re building at camp in new environments.

Interactive Learning

Teens did not want to feel like they were in a classroom all summer. They expressed wanting opportunities to learn through different modalities. All our programming at Beyond Akeela is interactive and hands-on; teens learn through activities, community service, group discussions, and practicing skills in a truly organic setting.

Programming That Aligns With Their Interests

Beyond Akeela offers unique activities, such as Dungeons & Dragons and Wilderness Survival. We strive to tailor our programming to our teens’ interests through choice-based programming to help them have a memorable and transformative summer.

You can learn more about our program here: Beyond Akeela Program.

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Success at ASD Teen Camp

Many families ask us how our program creates the social growth and increased self-confidence for ASD teens. Some of the most important work that we do occurs in the non-summer months when we set up the structure of our programming. We recently read this Harvard Business Education article about supporting neurodivergent learners in classrooms. The articles affirmed some of the practices we utilize at camp to create successful experiences for ASD teens.

Creating Community Before Arrival

Helping teens feel comfortable BEFORE they arrive is essential to our process. We meet with every teen before they arrive to go over the camp schedule. This ensures they know what to expect from the activities and when they will have downtime to recharge. Further, teens are invited to group hangouts over Zoom to connect with peers they will meet at camp. These steps, together, reduce the anxiety of teens upon their entry at camp. Most importantly, they increase their likelihood to take positive social risks which build lifelong connections.

Elective-Based Programming

Teens at Beyond Akeela are empowered to pursue their interests. Each camper selects activities, electives, community service options, and trips prior to their arrival. This increases their buy-in from the start, allowing them to get more out of the experience. Teens have a heightened sense of responsibility for their time at Beyond Akeela because they have selected a path that makes it their own experience.

Direct In-the-Moment Coaching

ASD Teens learn best by doing. At Beyond Akeela, they receive coaching from experienced staff mentors as they navigate their camp experience. Staff members develop rapport with teens quickly due to our 1:3 staff-to-camper ratio. Their relationship allows them to provide direct, honest, and compassionate social feedback to teens to enhance their social success. This same coaching model is applied to executive functioning skills such as time management, organization, and multi-step task completion.

You can learn more about the outcomes ASD Teens experience at Beyond Akeela here: Beyond Akeela Outcomes.

Let’s Not Lose These Stars on Earth- Neurodivergence in Indian Cinema

Reading aloud was the scariest thing for me when I was younger. I stuttered each time as I looked at the words dancing on my page and wondered how those jumbling letters translated into a meaningful sound. I kept thinking: What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I understand what everyone else seemed to grasp so effortlessly? Was I not working hard enough?

I found the missing puzzle piece when I watched Taare Zameen Par (Stars on Earth). I finally felt understood. Taare Zameen Par (2007) is a Bollywood film that follows the life of 8-year-old Ishaan, who has dyslexia. Ishaan is kind, curious, and incredibly artistic. But, he struggles to adapt to the rigid ways of learning at school. The film explores Ishaan’s journey of discovering himself as he navigates the myriad of injustices of the Indian education system.

Taare Zameen Par was the first mainstream depiction of neurodivergence in Indian cinema and profoundly transformed how Indian culture understands neurodiversity. Policymakers, educators, and parents finally realized the true impact of oppressive learning paradigms on a child’s self-esteem. As I revisit one of my favorite movies, I reflect on my key takeaways from Taare Zameen Par.

The Power of Belief
Believing in a child promotes the idea that they inherently have all the talents they need to accomplish their goals. It helps children develop a strong sense of self. Ishaan’s art teacher’s belief in him allows Ishaan to share his talents, engage in his learning, and foster connections with peers.

Connection is Paramount
Ishaan’s parents send him to a strict boarding school as a punishment. But Ishaan did not need more discipline; he needed more connection. He feels ashamed, defeated, and isolated. Once Ishaan feels accepted and connects with his art teacher and peers, he thrives and excels.

Accessibility Matters
Assessments in Indian public schools primarily test a student’s ability to recall content.
Ishaan grasps the concepts he learns and understands how to apply them. But, he finds it challenging to recall the content he learned verbatim. Ishaan’s art teacher advocates for different modalities of teaching and testing. He teaches Ishaan spelling and mathematics through audiobooks, art, and play. He also requests that Ishaan be able to take his tests orally. Ishaan received straight A’s that semester and built his confidence.

Learning is Play
During play, children use all of their senses, convey their thoughts and emotions, and explore their environment. In the context of play, children test out novel knowledge and theories. Ishaan builds a boat with scrap during art class. He creates a rotating fan by winding up a rubber band. This mechanism creates tension and helps the boat move through water. He expresses his understanding and application of mechanics through his creation.

Learning should be joyful. It is not just about academics but about helping young folks become the best versions of themselves. We emphasize play, connection, and accessibility in our community at Beyond Akeela and aim to create a safe space for each teenager to feel supported and empowered to discover their unique strengths and identity.

Overcoming College Hurdles for Autistic Young Adults

Recently we joined a group called the College Autism Network (CAN). We are fortunate to have access to a network of higher education professionals who work with young adults with autism. Through this we gain insights into what the future of college life looks like for Beyond Akeela teens. One professional recently posed a question about the biggest challenges autistic young adults are facing in college environments these days. We gathered some interesting takeaways from the conversation.

All Students are Facing Hurdles

Many students, regardless of their neurological makeup, are facing a similar set of challenges in college. Most of the challenges shared in the thread were tied to student’s maintaining their mental health, being resilient in times of challenge, and feeling overwhelmed by their course loads.

Biggest challenge is Overcoming Setbacks

We noticed the most common trend college faculty shared was that students are having trouble recovering from setbacks they encounter in college. More students are showing an inability to continue or adapt when they face hurdles, which sometimes results in withdrawal from classes.

Effective Coping Strategies are Essential

Students finding the most success in college right now have a strong understanding of healthy coping strategies that work for them. This is why we talk with all Beyond Akeela teens about their coping strategies. They have to access these skills at Beyond Akeela, as everyone has moments of frustration or anxiety at camp. College life is no different.

Reliance of Phones/Screens

Several program directors noted that they are seeing more students relying on screens as their main coping skill. This has adverse effects on student sleep, personal care, and classwork completion. We’ve noticed a similar uptick in families concerned about their teen’s coping skills at Beyond Akeela without screen access. This is why we don’t allow screens at camp, so campers build a variety of coping skills.

Best Results for Those Accessing Support

Several faculty noted that autistic young adults are experiencing less regression than the neuro-majority because of the services they access in college. It is essential for college success to have the self-monitoring skills to understand when help is needed, and how to access it.

One of our goals at Beyond Akeela is to help teens develop a better understanding of the structure and areas of support they benefit from to be successful, and empower them to advocate for that support.

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Thanking Our Coaches

Dear Beyond Akeela Families,

It’s the time of year when we gather with loved ones, be they friends or family, and reflect on what we’re thankful for. This year we can’t help but think of all the “coaches” in our lives that we interact with in different ways. Everyone, no matter their neurological makeup or path in life, benefits from coaching. Simon and Arlo are now taking swimming lessons. We’re grateful they have coaches who have the patience and will power to teach them some basic water safety skills (we certainly don’t!). In both of our professional lives, we have colleagues and mentors that we look to for coaching and guidance. They help us navigate our careers and build a better version of Beyond Akeela every year.

Yet it’s clear to us who the most important coaches in our lives are. The Beyond Akeela staff members we work with every summer are truly incredible. We talk with staff a lot about the concept of being coaches for the teens they work with. While they facilitate activities, conversations, and spontaneous moments of fun, they’re always wearing a coaches hat, identifying ways to mentor and coach the teens they work with.

We’re so proud and humbled to work with staff members who dedicate themselves to the mission of Beyond Akeela. They uproot their lives for two months to be amazing coaches. Staff come in with a variety of backgrounds and a common passion for youth development. They self-select into a living and learning community. They work around the clock, and smile through the ups and downs of camp life. It takes a special kind of person to be a great coach at Beyond Akeela and we’re so lucky to have worked with so many over the years.

Who are the coaches in your life? Is there something you’re working toward that a coach could help with? We encourage you to think about coaches you’ve had the fortune of working with, both past and present. Share your gratitude with them.

Kevin & Kristin

Why Send Your Teen to an Asperger’s Summer Transition Program

There are many benefits to sending your teen to an Asperger’s summer transition program that we could share with you, but it’s probably best that we let our families tell you why…

Building Social Skills at Camp

“Jane gained so much from her time at Beyond Akeela this past summer, and now that she is off at college, with accommodations in place, some tutoring, and an outside executive functioning coach, she seems to be doing so well! She is being social, making new friends and has joined at least two clubs. We couldn’t be prouder of her and we believe we have Beyond Akeela to thank for helping her learn how to socialize again.”

Preparing for College at Camp

“I do not think we realized until this past month when we watched Tim settle in relatively smoothly to college that we understood the impact Beyond Akeela had on him. He has referred to his transition program several times, saying things like, “They told us about this at Beyond Akeela…”. He has gotten through the bumps more smoothly at Eastern because of Beyond Akeela. We are thankful.”

Building Confidence for College Transition at Camp

“Jonathan gets back from engineering camp tomorrow. I credit Beyond Akeela for giving him the confidence he needed to participate in this program. Being prepared for the college living situation, knowing he can do it, was one hurdle we all didn’t have to worry about. He is enjoying the schedule, the socializing and the project, and phones/computers are allowed and necessary. He’s chosen to be involved with optional activities rather than stay in his room on a device.”

“Sarah is much more self confident and feels much more prepared for college. She got off the plane and said to us “ I am so ready for college!” She really enjoyed the other campers and felt like she found friends she “fit in” with.”

Building Life Skills at Camp

“Joyce is socially more engaged and excited to interact with friends now that she is back from Beyond Akeela. She is more willing to take feedback and is keeping up with some of the improved habits she adopted, such as managing her time and schedule more independently.”

Beyond Akeela’s Asperger’s summer college transition program has been creating transformative experiences for teens for over 10 years, and we look forward to changing more lives next year!

Summer 2022 Reflection

After each summer of camp, we take some time to reflect on the successes and challenges of the season. This is both an internal and external dialogue, as we seek out feedback from families and staff on their experience with Beyond Akeela. We can’t thank you enough for continuing to share your thoughts with us. I firmly believe that discussions with families, teens, and staff throughout the fall season make our program better, and we’re grateful for the opportunity to continue building our program. With that, we want to share what we’ve been reflecting on this fall and looking forward to next summer.

  • Engagement in Curriculum Sessions – This was our first year of going to an elective based system for curriculum sessions at camp, and we were so happy with the results. Campers showed more engagement in the conversations and discussions than we’ve seen in previous years. We’re excited to continue tweaking the sessions to align with the goals and objectives of our teen population.
  • A Dedicated Staff – This team of staff members was one of the best we’ve had the pleasure of working with. Their commitment and dedication to camp was remarkable. Working in any camp setting is a challenging endeavor, and this group never wavered on that commitment. It was also the first year we developed a true leadership team, allowing us as directors to take a step back and allow others to lead the program. That was a great development for Beyond Akeela that we’re excited to keep in the community going forward!
  • Boston Trip – Any time you bring a group of 50+ teens into a large metropolitan area for the first time, no matter how much you prepare there’s going to be a little fear of the unknown until you actually do it. We were SO impressed with how Beyond Akeela teens represented the community during both Boston trips. The groups made the most of their trips and capped off camp in amazing fashion!
What we’re working on
  • Year-Round Engagement – We’re excited to be bringing on a new Assistant Director (stay tuned for the intro when we make the hire!), who will enhance our “off-season” communication and engagement with families. We are excited to stay more connected to everyone throughout the year, and help teens maintain the connections and progress they make over the summer. Thanks for sharing your thoughts in the Year-Round Programming Survey!
  • Communicating Camper Progress – Beyond Akeela teens worked intentionally toward their goals last summer and showed great progress. We’re working on better systems to communicate that progress more effectively and timely to families, including overall observations at the end of the summer.
  • Acts of Daily Living at Camp – We’re developing plans for easier ways for teens and staff at camp to track the acts of daily living campers engage in at camp, related to hygiene, laundry, and keeping a tidy room.

We hope you all have had some chances to reflect on your time with Beyond Akeela this past year as a family, and that you’ll use the experiences as a launching pad for this coming year!

Kevin & Kristin

Evaluating College Options for Neurodiverse Teens

We were thrilled to welcome Colin Brady, Director of Student Success at Mitchell College, back to the Akeela community. Colin was the presenter in Beyond Akeela’s most recent webinar: “Evaluating College Options for Neurodiverse Teens.” A full recording of the webinar can be found above.

In this webinar, Colin discussed with families how he breaks down the many different college programs available to students with learning disabilities. With such an overwhelming number of programs and various types of support for social and academic success, Colin’s presentation provided great tips for identifying key characteristics in programs to look for and consider. Below are a few highlights from Colin’s presentation:

Presentation Highlights

  • Tiers of Support: There are so many schools and programs that offer support to neurodiverse students, but the level of support varies drastically. Colin breaks down types of schools into three tiers, based on the student population size and how ingrained the learning support program is into the culture of the school. One is not necessarily better than the others!
  • Measured Progress: An important thing to consider when selecting a program is how the program measures and tracks the success of students. It varies widely across the landscape of programs, each with its own philosophy and progress reporting procedures. It’s important to consider a teen’s goals for college and how that matches with the philosophy and measurable outcomes promoted by a learning support program.
  • Summer Programs: College is a big step for everyone, especially when it’s far away from home or someone’s first time away from home. Gaining some experience living away from home and experiencing college life through a summer program before going off to college can lead to better outcomes for success in college.

We hope you enjoy the presentation! Please feel free to reach out to us with any questions that you have!

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Self-Awareness in Neurodiverse Young Adults

A couple recent events have sparked some thoughts I wanted to share with our community. Both surround the concept of self-awareness and owning one’s “-ness.” Some may recall the Owen Wilson movie “You, Me, and Dupree” in which Owen Wilson’s character preaches finding your “inner -ness.” While the movie makes light of the phrase, I think there’s something to it that is extremely important for college success. This is especially the case for neurodiverse young adults.

Understanding Your ‘Ness'”

I was talking with a guardian of a high school senior recently who is planning to attend college next year. The student was recently diagnosed with ASD Level 1, and the guardian was unsure of how to and whether to discuss that with the student. Especially for teens in high school, I always feel strongly that neurodiverse young adults should know as much as they can about their neurological makeup. This allows them to better understand how they learn and the kind of support they should consider accessing. The long-term self-awareness gained from that knowledge is empowering and essential for college success.

On a similar note, I just started reading Dr. Perry LaRoque’s Taking Flight: College for Students with Disabilities, Diverse Learners and Their Families. I highly recommend the book for any family considering postsecondary education for their neurodiverse young adult. The book leads with a conversation about owning one’s identity and self-reflecting on college readiness. Dr. LaRoque emphasizes the importance of understanding your strengths, passions, and areas you need support in as an essential component of college success. All of these are best understood when you have an understanding of and confidence in your identity. This is especially true because colleges are not specifically designed for diverse learners.

How to Build Self-Awareness

So, where to go from here? The more teens are afforded opportunities to make decisions for themselves, the better! Decision making empowers young adults and builds confidence in their ability to make good choices for themselves. This could be as simple as planning out their meals for a few nights a week, to more complex decision making through leading an IEP meeting. There are going to be mistakes made along the way and that’s okay! Mistakes are great opportunities for learning. The collection of successes and mistakes help neurodiverse young adults establish a stronger sense of self, which is essential for their college success.

Summer 2021 Reflection

All summers are memorable for their own reasons. They each bring a unique set of experiences and stories that are held sacred by the community members in those groups. For summer 2021, this especially holds true! Most everything about this past summer was new in some way shape or form, and it is absolutely one we are going to cherish memories from for a long time. We hope that the community of campers and staff are able to reflect back on the summer with fondness of the memories they created with one another. There is a lot we took away from the summer that we will keep near our hearts and minds as we move forward to 2022. Here are a few things that have climbed to the top of that list:

  • Resilience: Remember that time during the first session when a microburst happened right over Pearly Pond, closing entrances to camp and knocking out power across campus? We do too! What we remember most though is how resilient the entire community was through such a disruptive event. Teens, when you face challenges this coming school year, remember how you navigated that and other challenges at camp successfully.
  • Stepping Up: When given new responsibilities and freedoms, Beyond Akeela teens stepped up. Whether it was taking on a leadership role in a D&D campaign or community service group, or managing their laundry for the first time, Beyond Akeela teens took those on as growth opportunities. As a leadership team, we opened the door this summer for teens to take more responsibility and ownership over their experience, and they absolutely stepped up to the challenge!
  • Community: You’ve probably noticed we use this word a lot. There’s intentionality to it. We were amazed this year that after we doubled the size of camp, there was still the same sense of community teens and staff love. That is all a credit to the teens from last summer. Everyone came from different walks of life, yet remained excited about getting to know a new group of friends. Each camper helped create a warm and welcoming environment for their peers, which is what makes Beyond Akeela so great! We hope teens will reflect back on what helped make this summer’s community so special and find ways to recreate it at home and school.
  • Trying Something New: For virtually everyone at camp this summer, camper or staff, Beyond Akeela was a new experience for them. We also heard so many stories about teens trying new things at camp, whether it was new foods, performing in front of others, joining dance parties with people they met an hour before, and so many more. Taking these risks is what camp is all about, and where real personal development happens. What’s something new you’re going to try this year?

Everyone played a role in creating these points of reflection for us. While camp is only a three week experience together, there are so many moments that challenge everyone in the community to grow in ways that are unique to themselves. Like we have, we hope you’ll take some time to reflect on what camp meant to your family this year, and how the experience will create opportunities for growth in the current school year.

Kevin & Kristin