Special needs spur special summer program

A fundraiser is planned for a camp that will cater to children with autism spectrum disorders.

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WALLA WALLA -- Children diagnosed with autism need specialized help nearly all the time, and summertime is no different.

To that end, the Eastern Washington Autism Spectrum Disorder Association is building a plan for a summer program for children diagnosed with the neural development disorder that is marked by impaired social interaction and communication, and by restricted and repetitive behavior.

A fundraising event filled with wine, music, food and goodies to bid on is planned for Saturday at Jacobi's, 416 N. Second Ave., beginning at 5 p.m. Members of the association hope to make a dent in the $17,000 needed for the first specialized summer program, said organizer Heidi Norton.

Summer can be hard on autistic children and their families, said Heather Tarnasky, vice president of the association. To begin with, the loose structure of the days does kids such as her son no favors.

Jack, 10, attends Edison Elementary School's autism classroom. Tarnasky knows that a traditional summer day program would not serve Jack or his peers well, she said. "For starters, there is the large number of children. These kids (with autism) require more supervision, a lower child-adult ratio. They get excited about it at first, then go do their own thing."

It can be difficult for teachers and camp counselors not trained in helping the autistic camper to understand that such children often self-isolate to block out the hubbub of the environment, Tarnasky pointed out. "The less noise, the better they function."

As well, most summer programs have periods of free time meant to encourage creativity and social skills. For Jack, those periods are unsettling and untethered, "three days of 'I don't know what to do,'" she said. "They must be directed."

The proposed program would, instead, be three days a week of specific activities designed to foster growth in social and behavioral skills, healthy exercise and eating habits, communication skills and community access.

"Like life skills for younger kids," Tarnasky said. "The day will be a limited number of hours."

Having Jack and others learn how to read a bus map then get to Jefferson Park pool by public transit will be one component of the six-week program. Once there, the campers will find kids their own age who are generally more accepting of the behaviors exhibited by kids living with autism, she pointed out. "They are more likely to come up and interact."

Also on the agenda will be exposing the children to foods they might not normally be willing to try. "A lot of these kids have huge food adversities. It's another sensitivity to flavors and textures and colors."

Because getting proper nutrition can be a high hurdle for kids with autism, this part of the day will be a "big deal," Tarnasky explained. "You have to teach them that you have to have things from all the food groups."

Half of the money raised at Saturday's event will be dedicated to staff training, she added.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

Learn More

For more information about the Eastern Washington Autism Spectrum Disorder Association, go to ewasda.org, send email to ewasda08@hotmail.com or call Norton at 360-929-0058.

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