UC Berkeley’s Blue Camp helps children with social-skills deficits

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Blue Camp/Courtesy

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Located on UC Berkeley’s Clark Kerr campus, Blue Camp is a unique summer camp that uses outdoor activities and social coaching to help “children with Nonverbal Learning Disabilities, High Functioning Autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, and children with similar social skills deficits.” There are two divisions for elementary school students and teenagers in high school, but both provide a supportive atmosphere where campers can learn how to interact with others in a natural environment. Campers participate in activities such as archery, lacrosse, water polo, card games, and arts and crafts. The teen program gives teenagers a chance to learn leadership by letting them teach elementary school children how to play sports. The Daily Clog interviewed Blue Camp director Dr. Jennifer H. Selke to understand how the program helps children and teenagers with autism spectrum disorders learn social skills.

Daily Clog: How do kids learn social skills through Blue Camp?

Jennifer Selke: In the elementary division, the kids’ goal is to be a regular participant in camp. For kids who have difficulties with social skills, being around other kids isn’t always a successful experience, so we provide them with a social coach that stays with them as they go through their activities. The coach helps them use more pro-social skills that are used to gain friends and avoid behaviors that might bother someone else, like taking the ball away from other kids. They’re practicing more appropriate social behavior that helps them deal with winning or losing and being flexible. Those are things that everybody needs to do in life, and that can be hard for kids who might be less flexible or have difficulty making friends.

Our teen program is designed for teenagers to gain work skills. They’re learning what it means to take initiative, such as do you step over a piece of trash or pick it up? When you’re on the spectrum, you might need a coach that will help explain things or break things down further. Other kids might pick it up naturally — for example, when I say “Hey, can you help me carry this?” anybody would say, “Of course.” Some of the kids on the spectrum, because they heard “can you” and it was in the form of a question, might say no because they want to do something else. They didn’t get the social context of how it’s really not a question, it’s the boss asking you to carry something with them. Even better, you might go help out even before she asks the qutry something new2estion. That’s not always obvious to a typically developing teenager — much less our teens with spectrum disorders. So they’re going to learn, “If you see this, this is what you should do.”

Our motto is to develop life skills no matter what age you are. The 8-year-old who brings their favorite magic cards to camp and gets them wet is learning, “Maybe I shouldn’t bring something I care about that much to an environment where they could get ruined.” The teenager who needs a new timesheet is learning not to ask the boss about something simple. You don’t bother the highest person in the chain when there are five other people in the office willing to help. Similarly, you wouldn’t think to ask your professor something simple if there are five GSIs available.

DC: What’s the greatest challenge you faced when directing the social skills program?

JS: The biggest challenge is finding the kid that’s going to benefit from our model. We wish we were placed to help every single kid with every single disability, but we’re not. I do a lot of interviewing in the spring to find out the challenges a particular teen has, what they’re struggling with, things they already know and what they want to learn. We’re a sports camp with hundreds of kids, and it’s fast-paced. One 17-year-old kid had a really awful time his first day. He said, “I just want a rule sheet for every single class in the day of what happens and what I should do.”

I personally interview every child and teenager who wants to come to this camp. We can’t have kids who run when they’re upset or kids who will strike or lash out at another kid. Some of the kids tend to be very literal thinkers, so it’s not uncommon for them to say things to campers that other teenagers would know to keep in their head. If they’re helping in the 7-, 8-year-old basketball class and one of the kids can’t dribble, they might say, “Wow, you’re really awful at basketball.” It’s possibly true, but another teenager would know, without anybody telling them, you just don’t say that. It’s like an unwritten rule of life that you learn. Sometimes we have to call home and explain to a parent why their camper is crying, so we try to prevent that. The teenagers get good at explaining to their group of 7-year-olds that they have Asperger’s or autism and sometimes they say things that might be rude but they’re really working on it. Some of the kids are really developing some advocacy skills.

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DC: Why did you choose to direct a summer camp for kids who have problems with social skills?

JS: I went to a nonverbal learning disabilities conference in San Francisco, and I met a lot of families who had kids who looked fairly typical but struggled in the social arena. They’d outgrown social-skills groups and were ready to try to master being with other kids, but they weren’t ready to go full-on without a coach. They could tell you sets of social skills like “look someone in the eye,” but they couldn’t execute it because it’s so much more difficult to do it in a real-life setting. So, with the help of the parents, we came up with this elementary and teenage program that would parallel our programs that were already running. The kids would get to be like everybody else but have somebody there to privately coach them. We wouldn’t label them — these kids are so tired of feeling different and being ostracized — so we knew it needed to be seamless. You can’t tell where the program begins and ends.

DC: What’s your favorite part about running Blue Camp?

JS: The best times are when we get a lot of comments from parents saying that the program has changed their kid’s life. I talked to a parent a couple days ago, and he had tears in his eyes. He was a university employee who’d signed his son up for camp, and he’d seen changes in four weeks in his child that he hadn’t seen in his entire life. It’s no small thing; it’s so meaningful for him that it makes him cry.

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Contact Katy Yuan at [email protected].