Campers With Challenges Get Skills to Handle Them

Photo by Sahale Greenwood / OUTLOOK Juliana Frias, head of the creative art department, and camper Mili happily make slime.
Photo by Sahale Greenwood / OUTLOOK
Juliana Frias, head of the creative art department, and camper Mili happily make slime.

For children deemed on the autism spectrum, with learning disabilities, developmental and behavioral difficulties or other vexing challenges, traditional summer camps may often not be an option.
But Professional Child Development Associates’ summer camp provides a fun and supportive environment for these children by ensuring that they have professional supervision and surroundings in which they can start building relationships and personal coping habits for some of the hurdles they face. PCDA, a nonprofit organization based in Pasadena, is a comprehensive group of child development specialists providing year-round services for children and families.
At its most recent two-week camp, all the children had distinctive characteristics, such as the tendency to break into songs from musicals for everyone to hear, or to become overwhelmed by a room full of people and seek solace by retreating to a corner. Whatever the specific difficulty, PCDA’s camp focuses on providing the camper with interactive experiences that teach the participant how to cope with personal hurdles and build relationships with staff members and other campers.
The morning day-camp was staffed with trained counselors, musical therapists and enthusiastic volunteers who provided campers, lovingly referred to as “kiddos,” with comfortable and compassionate one-on-one attention.
About 20 campers were enrolled in its summer session, reflecting the program’s gradual growth. While the camp formerly was open only to kids ages 8-12, the high demand among parents desiring a specialized camp to give their kids the environment and care they need encouraged PCDA to accept campers as old as 18.
“We use the philosophy of DIR Floortime, which is a model where counselors focus on the individual child and their interests to work on building relationships and a feeling of community by providing them with a controlled sensory environment and adult support. The campers then advance to feeling pleasure and joy and building trust,” said Dr. Diane Cullinane, PCDA’s executive director. “We want them to enjoy being with the other kids and express themselves.”
“When the kids are upset, we support them through relationships, not discipline,” Cullinane said.
Juliana Frias, head of the creative art department, added, “We want to find out the source of the kiddo’s issue and 90% of the time when a child exhibits anger or aggression, they are having trouble with their sensory processing” — that is, responding to information received through the senses — “often because it is too loud. We model the behavior the campers should have by lowering our voices instead of telling them to quiet down.”
This philosophy was illustrated when one camper became very upset and overwhelmed with how noisy the room was becoming and began to scream and cry, which only added to the noise. Frias and other counselors responded not by telling the upset camper to quiet down or handing out punishment, but instead by lowering their own voices and putting on relaxing music, which calmed the room and the camper.

Photo by Sahale Greenwood / OUTLOOK Camper Nathaniel and music therapist intern Danielle make rain sticks with recycled items.
Photo by Sahale Greenwood / OUTLOOK
Camper Nathaniel and music therapist intern Danielle make rain sticks with recycled items.

“Music allows these kids to find a way to communicate in a less verbal way and to use music as a medium to feel pleasure and connection,” said Ana Needham, a musical therapist for PCDA. PCDA has five musical therapists, a number that “is almost unheard of to have all at one program,” Frias added.
Counselors and therapists try not to force the kids into an activity, but instead provide the materials and space for the campers to explore the music on their own and find a beneficial way for them to interact with it as a form of communication.
Frias described a camper who had difficulty sorting through his emotions, so he often would become overwhelmed with happiness that would quickly turn to anger or aggression because he did not have the skills to sort through his feelings yet. At the beginning of camp he would react by pulling girls’ hair or becoming very loud. However, during one breakdown, Frias took the camper’s hands and began to sing a musical scale, which calmed him and gave him the space necessary to process his emotions. Now, instead of causing a scene when he gets upset, this camper has been given the coping skills to ask for someone to sing the “dee dees,” as he calls it.
The musical therapy program is made possible by the Carolyn Watson Scholarship and Pasadena Rotary Grant, which have provided for 12 students to receive scholarships to attend camp, helped buy art supplies and funded the camp’s musical therapy activities.
The camp concluded with a show that campers put on for their parents in the art gallery in the PCDA building. The students’ artwork had been collected over the two weeks of camp to be displayed in the gallery and taken home by the parents on the last day of camp.
In addition to seeing their children’s artwork, parents saw performances from the three subdivided groups of campers. The youngest group did a runway show for their work, strutting down the catwalk and proudly showing their art to the audience. The oldest group put on a play based on the three little pigs and the big bad wolf.
PCDA’s summer camp is a unique environment that fosters relationship-building as the most productive way to help children with sensory-processing difficulties. Its philosophy and practice of modeling behavior and creating space for relationships appeared to help the campers quickly develop skills for handling frustrations.
“The children feel proud, at the end, of what they accomplished at camp,” Cullinane said.
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