Rusty the golden retriever sits patiently as, one by one, the campers paint each of his four paws either red, blue, or yellow and press them onto the long white paper banner.
“Those are Rusty’s paws, would you like to paint your paws, too?” lead teacher Allison Dolehanty asks the hesitant child, handing him a paintbrush dipped in his favorite color.
Painting their "paws" is just one of the many activities available for campers at this year's OUCARES summer camp for children diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 1 in 110 children in the United States is diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum disorder. This number is continuing to rise.
The Oakland University Center for Autism Research, Education, and Support, or OUCARES, offers awareness, information and socializing opportunities for children with autism and adults as well as their caregivers. The program is striving to improve the lives of children with autism and adults and working to break down the barriers of socialization and communication that these individuals face.
Services provided through OUCARES reach more than 800 families a year, some with more than one family member diagnosed with autism.
Program Director Kathy Sweeney said she has learned so much working with these individuals and wants to see OUCARES reach even more families and make an even bigger difference in the community.
“We’re here 12 months a year with different activities trying to really help improve not only the individual with autism’s quality of life, but that family’s life, too," Sweeney said.
This summer, OUCARES is hosting its annual summer camp for children ages 6-12, and for the first time has added the Peewee camp for children 3-5 years old that are diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder.
The camp runs June 20 - Aug. 12 and consists of four 2-week sessions Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. The camp has been a huge success so far; each session has completely sold out for both age groups.
During this summer camp, the staff works very closely with the children to develop and enhance their key socialization and communication skills while also helping them make sense of everyday activities.
Each camp activity is geared toward the needs and skill levels of the children, incorporating in a fun and interactive way the skills that need to be improved.
“We want to make sure that they are involved and doing things that are fun and interactive,” said Dr. Jan Graetz, associate professor of special education at Oakland University. “That’s what they need, because children with autism tend not to be highly interactive.”
The staff is made up of supervisors and OU practicum students who have earned their master’s degree but need the hands-on experience working with autistic children. These students develop lessons and activities and work closely with the children to reach each child's goals.
“It’s amazingly unique for us to have this camp and be able to address the needs of practicum students that are going to be teachers out in our community,” Sweeney said. “That’s huge.”
Allison Dolehanty has been working with children with autism for nine years and is the lead teacher and overseer of the practicum students at this year’s OUCARES camp. This is the first year she has been involved in the camp, and she said she loves it and finds it very rewarding.
“When you can find a pivotal sort of strategy that helps the child communicate, or just helps them understand better, you see the difference in the calmness,” she said. “It’s a lot of little things that add up to big differences, and that’s exactly why I love doing it.”
The staff also works with the parents of the campers to determine the areas for improvement.
“We’ve gotten a lot of information from school and home about where the kids are and what they need to work on as far as academics and social skills,” Dolehanty said. “So we’re having the practicum students look at the kids in that way and adapt the lessons so that they’re really doing some meaningful instruction.”
Rochester resident Sue Capaldi’s son Aaron is a camper this summer. He has been involved in social skills classes and indoor and outdoor soccer through OUCARES in the past.
“The (staff) are so enthusiastic and positive about what they are doing,” Capaldi said. “And he picks up on how positive and happy they are. It makes a big difference when they don’t feel burdened.”
Susan Bachmann of Rochester also has a son in the camp this year. She said her son Nigel is more talkative when he gets home from the camp and tells her about the activities of his day.
“It’s not normal for him to show emotion,” she said. “The first day I picked him up he actually cried because he would miss his friends.”
For more information on OUCARES, visit the program's Facebook page.
OUCARES is still looking for more volunteers for their 2-week Summer Film Camp with Joey Travolta. Participants will learn to shoot, direct and star on their own films Aug. 15-26. Visit www.oakland.edu/oucares to sign up.