Seven-year-old Ethan Hemry, with counselor Rendi Turner, reaches out to pet one of two ponies at the Hormel Historic Home Friday, the last day of the first ever Circle of Friends Day Camp. - Eric Johnson/

Archived Story

For autistic children, camp is a blast

Published 4:01pm Saturday, July 31, 2010
Nine-year-old Raya Nelson of Woodbury, Minn. plays a game with Brenda Raffelson Friday, during the final day of The Circle of Friends Day Camp for kids dealing with autism. - Eric Johnson/

What looked like a traditional children’s day camp — complete with arts and crafts, games and snacks — was in fact the first of its kind in Austin, and likely in the region.

The Circle of Friends Day Camp, held Monday through Friday at the Hormel Historic Home, welcomed in 24 youngsters dealing with autism, allowing them the chance to play with, learn with and befriend other kids just like them.

And because autism is typically characterized by, among other things, impaired social interaction, that opportunity meant a lot.

“The most rewarding component,” said camp director Heather Hanzlick, “is that camp allows campers to have fun and make friends. Those are lifelong skills.”

For Hanzlick, getting involved with autistic youth has been a “personal journey,” because her family has been affected by the disorder. With that as motivation, she has spent the past decade learning more about autism and getting involved with productive events, like the Circle of Friends camp.

Hanzlick said camps like the one here — which are few and far between in Minnesota — serve a great purpose because they are uniquely suited for autistic children. That means that group sizes are kept smaller, so as to not overwhelm campers who may struggle in social settings.

Also, because those with autism do well with colors and patterns, the Circle of Friends camp was very visually oriented, with groups broken up by colors and instructions often given via pictures, not words.

The camp’s structure also borrowed somewhat from the thoughts of Dr. Temple Grandin, the renowned autism expert who spoke in Austin two weeks ago. Grandin emphasizes the fact that autistic children tend to become very strong and interested with one thing — as she did with corral design — but weaker in other areas. However, she consistently urges parents to encourage their autistic children to really focus on their strengths and maybe make a career out of them.

At the camp, children were allowed to choose from one of five interest groups every day — science, art, music and theater, animals and construction. The idea, Hanzlick said, was to allow campers to better develop areas they like and are good at.

Austin resident Julie Maloney said her son Marshall, 8, became engrossed with the construction group, which he joined all five days.

But getting Marshall to camp took a little more work — Maloney said her son initially didn’t want to go because he “didn’t know what to expect.”

However, five days later, mom said young Marshall had a blast, and she said she’d like to see more camps like Circle of Friends pop up in the area.

“I would really hope they do more,” Maloney said. “It’s a fantastic and wonderful opportunity for southern Minnesota.”

Laura Helle, the executive director of the Hormel Historic Home, said that’s the plan — a 2011 Circle of Friends camp has been penciled down, and Helle said she’d like to expand, hopefully adding a camp for older kids and an all-night camp into the mix.

And certainly, the demand would seem to be there. Currently, an estimated one out of every 110 children is diagnosed with autism, the advocacy group Autism Speaks reports. That makes autism more common than childhood cancer, juvenile diabetes and pediatric AIDS combined. In addition, the prevalence rate is reportedly growing by 10 to 17 percent every year, meaning autism is becoming even more common.

That’s why people like Hanzlick are so interested in events tailored to all these children, events which bring more awareness to a disorder that is only now starting to be better understood.

As Emily Whiteis, of Austin, left the Hormel home Friday with her autistic son, 7-year-old Ethan Hemry, she said she was glad to see that increased awareness translate into events like Circle of Friends.

“I thought it was amazing,” she said. “As a mom, sometimes you worry when you let your kid participate in a social event. (But) I felt so much comfort. I knew he was going to have a great time.”

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