David Morgan
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Lessons for Life in Five Days

June 11, 2014 - Public Relations - Information

Photo of happy kids smiling.

It’s June. School’s out. This is the time of year when New Mexico State University feels almost like a ghost town. Traffic is light. Sidewalks are empty, and you have a pretty good shot at getting a decent parking space for a change.

But if you drove past the NMSU Activity Center last week you’d see lots of students – many of them much younger than any college student. They were all participants in Camp New Amigos, the 5th annual summer camp for children living with autism.

“Camp New Amigos is a place where kids with autism can come, and it’s structured to meet their needs – so they can have a typical camp experience, and do all the things kids do when they go to camp,” said NMSU Assistant Professor Kathleen A. Cronin, Ph.D. “It provides them with the structured environment they want and need.”

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) affects behavior, communication and social interaction, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the developmental disorder is on the rise.

The CDC this last March released a report estimating 1 in 68 children in the United States has autism. This new estimate is roughly 30 percent higher than previous estimates reported in 2012 of 1 in 88 children.

Why the number is rising is the source of much research and debate, but there’s no question the trend is on the rise – and may not have seen its peak. Las Cruces Public Schools reports it provided special education services to 206 ASD students in the 2013-2014 school year.

“A lot of times people who aren’t familiar with kids with special needs or autism, the first thing they think when they see that child acting out in public is that it’s a behavioral issue,” said Megan Algarate. Her 8-year-old son has been attending Camp New Amigos since it started in 2009.

“The truth is our children can’t help what they’re doing,” said Algarate. “People think they are misbehaving, and they’re not.”

Camp New Amigos has expanded to include more children living in the spectrum every year, and the five day schedule is packed: swimming, kayaking, arts and crafts, archery, horseback riding, social games, music and climbing wall activities, and the lessons learned in just those few days are built to last.

“It’s not all about the activities they’re doing here; yes, any kid would want to do all of these things,” said parent Kristine Lambert. “It’s really more about the feeling [my son] gets when he’s here with the others. They are very accepting.”

“The self confidence he’s learned in a week in this camp carries him for the entire year,” said Algarate. “Here he’s embraced for who he is; it’s not a matter of working to make him fit in.”

Algarate says her son takes initiatives at Camp New Amigos he might never feel comfortable doing in school.

“Instead of him being the one who always has the meltdowns, now he’s able to be the one who helps younger kids who have them,” Algarate said. “He knows how to talk to them more because they are equals.”

“I think educating the families that don’t understand what autism spectrum disorder means is crucial,” said Lambert. “These are unique people, and they are brilliant people and there are a lot of famous folks that are on the spectrum: Scientists; Engineers. Had they just been pushed aside, what would we have?”

Camp New Amigos is funded through the fundraising efforts of the Hearts for Autism fund. Please visit the Hearts for Autism website for more information.


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