Circle of Friends camper Ray puts together a Lincoln Logs house with the help of Shawn Julson during the final day of the day camp at the Hormel Historic Home. - Eric Johnson/

Archived Story

Week-long autism camp ends

Published 4:26pm Saturday, August 6, 2011

For one week out of the year, special needs students with things like autism and Asperger’s syndrome have a place to fool around and be a kid.

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For one week out of the year, there’s a camp where every kid can belong.

“It’s a lot of fun,” said Grady Shupe, fifth grader.

The Circle of Friends Day Camp, in its second year, helped 26 first through sixth-grade special needs students this week learn vital social skills and celebrated their accomplishments at the Hormel Historic Home. The first special needs day camp in Austin, it’s one of the few autism camps outside the Twin Cities and the only special needs camp in southern Minnesota.

“Autism is a huge thing in this area, all over, and it’s growing,” said Lynsey Petersen, camp co-director. “There was just not a close camp.”

That’s why students from St. Ansgar, Iowa, and Lyle, as well as Austin students and even a Woodbury student participated this year.

Each day, students got to socialize with one another through many activities. They would all go on various outings, such as the Donut Connection on Wednesday, or the Austin Public Library on Thursday, or even the local YMCA, to learn about opportunities and options available for anyone.

Of course, that’s not including the interest periods. Each day, students chose whether they wanted to participate in Science, Music and Theatre, Construction, Gaming or Arts and Crafts.

“We play with puppets,” said Cameron Clennon, fourth grader.

There’s plenty to do, whether it’s playing with each other at their “cabins,” like Meg Barinka and Aidan Sweet, or constructing cars and rollercoasters out of Kinex, Legos and Lincoln Logs like Jordan Germain and Ray Wicks.

Campers at the Circle of Friends day camp get up close to see a replica volcano erupt Friday during the final day of the camp. - Eric Johnson/

“We’re trying to build the Space Needle,” Germain said.

Some students find comfort in learning about animals, as Darae Huff does, or working on science-related activities and building volcanoes like Shupe and Jadon Fimon.

“It’s so amazing,” Fimon said of his “dinosaur fossil.”

Each student gets to interact with technology as well, since there’s multiple Wii games any student can play. Myles Bauernfeind likes to be the MC for the Wii game Dress-Up Dance Marathon, as he usually gets high scores on each level.

“I’m the best at it,” he said proudly.

At the heart of each activity is social interaction, which these students don’t always get. It’s an important skill according to Julia Screeden, camp staff member and a speech pathologist at Mayo Clinic Health System — Austin. Screeden works with many of these students, and she’s seeing the therapy work she does individually with them paying off at camp.

“It’s wonderful,” she said. “There’s an amazing opportunity here.”

The camp culminates at the end of the week with a carnival, complete with cotton candy, a bouncy house, mini-games and, everyone’s favorite, the pony rides.

“I can’t wait for the carnival,” Waylon Nelson, second grader said Thursday.

When the carnival arrived, the students were amazed at how many things they could do. It takes a week for special needs students to process exciting events like going to a carnival, so it’s important for them to know in advance about things like the Bouncy House and pony rides.

Though camp may have ended, the lessons each camper received will be put to good use. Most of the camp staff are special education instructors at local schools, which means they’re familiar with each student and can use the camp experience in the classroom. Needless to say, camp has become an important fixture in Austin’s education.

“It’s huge,” Petersen said. “You see a lot of these kids go in the community and they just kind of shut down and not talk because they know they don’t fit in. In here, everyone fits in together and everyone’s accepting of each other. They just get what each other’s about and they’re not afraid to go up and be friends.”

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