April Regester, assistant professor of teaching and learning at UMSL, works with Joshua during the St. Louis Variety Club’s Adventure Camp in July. Joshua is one of several campers diagnosed with autism who interacted and worked with UMSL faculty and students during camp.

At summer camp this year, fifth-grader Joshua swam in the pool, played on the playground and raced around the gymnasium. Although these activities seem like those of any child at camp, Joshua, who has been diagnosed with autism, would not be able to do these things without St. Louis Variety Club’s Adventure Camp and the assistance of University of Missouri–St. Louis College of Education faculty.

Autism is a developmental disorder that is characterized by widespread abnormalities of social interactions and communication, as well as severely restricted interests and highly repetitive behavior. It affects 1 in 110 children and 1 in 70 boys. More children will be diagnosed with autism this year than with AIDS, diabetes and cancer combined.

April Regester, assistant professor of teaching and learning at UMSL, spent several weeks before this year’s camp preparing and working with camp counselors, training them on how to work with the campers who have autism. Then during the weeklong camp, which ran three times, twice in June and once in July, she assisted with the campers and counselors.

“I worked with camp volunteers on how to interact and effectively communicate with campers who have autism,” Regester said. “Many of the frustrations the campers experience are grounded in communication difficulties. Helping to eliminate the communication barriers through the use of pictures, schedules and communication devices is an easy way to address these frustrations, and is essential for a successful camp experience. Another part of training the counselors is to show them how to help someone without doing everything for them, providing the camper with more independence and feelings of pride due to their accomplishments.”

The relationship between UMSL and St. Louis Variety Club began in 2008 when Patricia Kopetz joined the university as the E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor in Education for Children with Disabilities in Connection with the Variety Club of Greater St. Louis. She established the Certificate in Autism Studies program at UMSL, which is an 18-credit-hour program, coupled with a master’s of special education program through the College of Education.

For the last two years, UMSL students and faculty have trained staff and assisted with the Adventure Club camp.

“We are able to provide an enjoyable camp experience for children who may not have otherwise had the opportunity to attend summer camp,” Kopetz said. “This partnership with Variety is beneficial for all involved. Our students gain real-life experience, we train personnel for Variety, and campers enjoy a full summer camp experience.”

Barb Kramer, program director for Variety, also said having UMSL faculty and students participate in the camp has benefited everyone.

“Our goal is to serve the whole child as well as the family,” Kramer said. “UMSL and Pat Kopetz have been amazing assets to us, and through those resources we’ve been able to fully serve children and families throughout the spectrum.”

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Jen Hatton

Jen Hatton