Autism Camp at Dragonfly Forest

It with great pleasure that I write about one of the best projects I’ve ever worked on. Dragonfly Forest is a camp in the Philadelphia area that serves kids with serious illnesses and disorders. Two years ago, they decided to run a session for kids with autism, and I had the privilege of designing the program.
First, let me say that the camp is FREE for parents/families. Each session is about a week long, and it’s an overnight camp.

These two became fast friends, right away!

These two became fast friends, right away!

Part of the reason I was so excited to work on this autism program is because I truly love summer camp. I’ve worked at lots of camps, usually with my friend and mentor Scott Arizala, and I believe that everyone grows at camp. Kids, counselors, directors, and parents…everyone make these inexplicable leaps in understanding that most people do not understand. Camp is corny, it’s passionate, and it’s magical, and I highly recommend it for kids of all ages.

This really cool snake is clearly riveting

They are looking at a really cool snake.

My other passion lies in the autism field, and connecting these two interests was and is thrilling for me. I decided to design the program to be very similar to other camp sessions, but with extra structure (& explanatory visuals), additional activity choices, and some extra staff.

Marshmallow station at opening campfire

Marshmallow station at opening campfire.

I did not want to leave out any opportunities for fun, so we included the ropes course, campfires, canoeing, archery…the whole enchilada. Coming from a camp background, I felt very strongly that our camp was NOT supposed to be ‘therapy’, we were NOT going to shove any lessons down anyone throat. Instead, we were going to teach stuff the good way-by cramming as much freaking fun as possible into each day, and working to appreciate people for who they are, without trying to change them.

30 feet in the air! No wonder he is concentrating.

30 feet in the air! No wonder he is concentrating.

I was really nervous the night before the kids came…what if I forgot something? What if I was wrong and I accidentally over-estimated what the kids could do? What if someone gets hurt, or runs away (we had several runners signed up)? Did I sleep that night? Maybe an hour or two, tops.

Over the next few days, I was relieved to see that I had not underestimated anyone, my wonderful staff performed beautifully, and compassionately, and the kids loved camp. Let me be clear: autism camp is definitely not melt-down free (that would be ridiculous), instead it is a place where having a meltdown one minute doesn’t keep you from having fun the next minute. We accept meltdowns, and we move on. And the crazy thing is, that’s just one tiny slice of the magic that is camp.

My friend Robert, and 3 autism campers

My friend Robert, and 3 autism campers

Mike Belleme is the photographer who shot these great photos.

Yes, that's me in the middle.  Best job EVER!

Yes, that’s me in the middle. Best job EVER!

9 Comments

  1. Michelle September 14, 2009 6:22 pm  Reply

    Great Blog!
    Thanks for writing.. Ben looks adorable!

    • Empower Autism September 14, 2009 7:27 pm  Reply

      He does look adorable! Thanks for letting Dragonfly (and me) brag about him!

  2. Renee September 14, 2009 8:21 pm  Reply

    Volunteering as a camp counselor at Camp Dragonfly has been one of my best experiences as a Special Education teacher! I’ve learned a lot about kids with autism over the last 2 summers – how to encourage FUN and a sense of independence outside of the educational setting (yay!).
    Sylvia and the great staff at Camp Dragonfly are the GREATEST!

  3. Nanci Goldenberg September 14, 2009 9:07 pm  Reply

    My experience as a volunteer counselor has had such an enormous impact on my life. I recently changed careers and now am working full time as an instuctional aid in the autism support class at a local elementary school. Thanks to my training at Dragonfly, I feel qualified to use the skills that I need to work with my students. Thank you Sylvia!

    • Empower Autism September 14, 2009 9:30 pm  Reply

      The program depends on you guys! Thanks for donating your energy and brains to our campers!

  4. Fred Weiner September 15, 2009 8:33 am  Reply

    I must say that Sylvia has created an amazing Autism program. Here are a few quotes from his summer. From a Dragonfly Camper with Autism – “Dragonfly Counselors are like a pack of wolves … not because they’re vicious, but because they look out for each other’s kids.” From another Dragonfly Camper with Autism – “You can make lots of friends at camp.” From a Camper Parent – Still trying to put into workds the gratitude that I have for Dragonfly and their Autism Camp – “it is like water to a thirsty soul … for a child that has not been allowed to drink from the public fountain of fun and games … ” Perhaps my favorite camper quote is “A year is too long to wait to go back to camp!!!”

    Sylvia – thanks for making such an amazing program!

  5. Mike Belleme September 15, 2009 6:02 pm  Reply

    I like the wolf thing… Gotta remember that. This was an experiance that I will never forget. Thanks Sylvia!

  6. Dik van Meerten September 16, 2009 3:02 am  Reply

    Great stuff Sylvia…very cool

  7. Rweikert June 11, 2010 11:29 am  Reply

    My son will be attending autism camp here in 2 weeks. And I can not wait for him to have this experience. I am teary-eyed and speechless. Thank you for sharing this.

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