Camp Helps Children Conquer Social Disabilities

By Arielle Levin Becker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 29, 2004; Page B02

Gabriel Leder, 8, stretched his legs across his aqua beanbag as his teacher asked if she could play with him. It was part of a skit, aimed at illustrating ways to ease into situations and play with others. According to the scene, she had arrived late to recess and Gabriel, sitting in an imaginary sandbox, was supposed to politely decline.

Across the room, posters offered instructions for similar situations he might find on a playground: "How to start a conversation," one instructed. "The W's" another read, above a listing of words that begin questions. "Compromise, take a turn . . . win a friend," another urged.

Playing in a sandbox, making friends or starting a conversation, social interactions that most people take for granted, are not easy for Gabriel, who has been diagnosed with a social learning disability. But along with seven other youngsters, he has learned skills such as saying hello, standing still while others are speaking and ending conversations politely as part of Take 2, a summer program for youngsters with similar problems that concludes its first year this week.

Most of the eight campers, ages 7 to 9, have been diagnosed with mild forms of autism or other developmental disorders. Like Gabriel, they are highly verbal and bright, but have difficulty understanding how to interact with other people. Monica Adler Werner, who co-founded the camp, says that what reading is to dyslexics, social interaction is to kids like Gabriel. By helping campers understand the steps involved in simple things, such as playing with others, camp leaders hope the campers will fare better in school and on the playground.

For some of the children, the four-week program -- held in a church in Tenleytown, in Northwest Washington -- has made a big difference.

After getting to know other campers, Liam Lovett, 8, is now "the happiest he's ever been," his father, Colin, said.

Liam has Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism in which a child functions at a high level. He loves his teachers in school, reads incessantly and performs well in math. But making friends is hard, so he is often lonely at his Arlington school and seldom talks about his classmates, his father said.

After coming home from Take 2, Liam, who had no close friends, talked about camp and friends he had made there.

"He was popular and wanted -- for him, not just because he's good at math, like he is in regular school," Lovett said.

Each camp day's activities are structured on a theme, such as participating in conversations or friendship skills. To enter the classroom in the morning, a camper must say a password in a particular way, which teaches awareness of intonation. The sandbox skits the children performed earlier this week were intended to emphasize other people and learn how to approach them. Later that morning, they played catch and ran laps in a line without passing one another, games that required the children to pay attention to those around them. Having several activities based on one theme helps campers generalize what they learn.

The idea is to give them "flip charts in their mind," Adler Werner said, cues for situations that will help them interact with others. At the end of each day, campers return home with "passbooks" that describe what they learned so that parents can learn the cues the campers learned and help them continue developing social skills. When the program ends, parents will receive guides to help keep up the lessons and will have regular consultations to maintain the children's progress.

That's especially important, said Gabriel's mother Lisa Greenman, who founded the camp with Adler Werner. Sessions end this week and most campers will return to school in mainstream or special education programs, but Greenman said she has not found a school that fits her son's needs. She hopes to start a school for kids with strong cognitive skills but who have difficulty with social interactions.

Greenman and Adler Werner, whose daughter also has a social learning disability, founded the camp after searching for programs for their children and finding none. They said they raised money and consulted experts in psychology and child development to develop a program and curriculum and built a staff of two special education teachers, an occupational therapist and a graduate student in psychology, who serve as teachers for the program.

Because they often struggle with expressing themselves, children with conditions like Asperger's syndrome often are perceived as disruptive, Greenman said.

"These children are so often misunderstood and mislabeled because they are so obviously bright and verbal that it's very difficult for people to understand why they're not behaving the way they're told to behave," she said.

2004 The Washington Post Company