A Meaningful Message

By Jane Peterson

Taking a hike, running around a playground, and going on a pontoon boat ride may seem routine to the casual observer, but outdoor recreational experiences such as these can be life-changing for children with autism.


Every summer, more than 100 children attend the OUCARES Autism Camp at Independence Oaks County Park (IOCP) near Clarkston, Mich. Among the toothy grins and peals of laughter during play, children with Autism Spectrum Disorders practice essential skills, such as communicating with peers and following instructions.

Oakland County Parks and Recreation (OCPR) and Oakland University Center for Autism (OUCARES) staff members experience firsthand how exposure to new activities can positively impact lives. As children go fishing, jump on inflatable bouncers, tackle a climbing tower, and take a nature-center hike, they get to venture outside their comfort zone.

Watching children challenge themselves is an amazing experience, says Sandy Dorey, recreation therapist with OCPR.

Planning For Success
Preparing for the summer day camps is a year-round activity, with efforts shared collaboratively between staff from OCPR and OUCARES. Besides the logistics of busing and insurance information, an itinerary is developed with photos and timelines for each program day.

In 2018, camp activities will be centered around a specific educational theme each day, says Dorey. In addition, older teens will participate in activities that offer life skills, such as fishing.

“It was decided to theme each week with a topic from nature and build activities for each day around the theme. An example is the stars—we will be utilizing our star lab, the craft will be based on constellations, and games and activities will relate to the stars,” says Dorey.

Oakland University began offering an autism-endorsed certificate for teachers and other professionals more than 30 years ago. That program developed into OUCARES, a multifaceted approach to education, research, and support services for families. In 2004, the university established a nonprofit autism center focused on improving the quality of life for families impacted by autism.

The growth of OUCARES demonstrates a clear need for autism outreach in Oakland County. OUCARES began in 2004 with only one program and 25 families. Last year, there were more than 25 programs, and 1,400-plus families were assisted.

Engagement in outdoor recreational activities opens up campers to social opportunities that perfectly complement the mission of OUCARES.

Director of OUCARES Kristin Rohrbeck shares that, while at IOCP, summer campers express positive emotions and interact more with each other on a peer-to-peer basis.

“Each year our campers look forward to experiencing the outdoors,” she says.

Situated on 1,286 acres in rural Independence Township, IOCP features more than 12 miles of paved and natural trails, a beach area for swimming, a recently renovated interpretive nature center, and the 68-acre Crooked Lake, which is utilized for canoeing, fishing, kayaking and pontoon boat rides.

Recognizing that some individuals with autism may have difficulty processing what others are saying or have a poor attention span, or have problems understanding multiple meanings, OCPR professionals plan activities that take these needs into consideration. For example, instead of a nature-center talk, the presentation features an interactive table that campers visit in small groups.

At the end of each session, program activities are evaluated and may be adjusted for the following year according to the campers’ responses.


Laying The Groundwork
In 2016, OCPR supervisors received a unique training opportunity through OUCARES. The session was designed with several key points in mind:

  • Ensuring that all staff members understand the unique needs of patrons with cognitive, developmental, and physical disabilities

  • Developing awareness for the sensitivity needed to make individuals with disabilities feel comfortable and welcome

  • Equipping staff with information about the behaviors of individuals with cognitive and developmental disabilities so staff can compassionately and appropriately respond to their needs

  • Acknowledging the need to continue to evaluate and discuss physical and social opportunities for individuals with disabilities and their families.

“Oakland County Parks and Recreation is committed to providing people of all abilities with the recreational equipment, programs, and services they need to maintain an active and healthy lifestyle at its 13 parks,” says Executive Officer Dan Stencil. “To better serve patrons with developmental, cognitive, and physical disabilities, as well as their families and caregivers, OCPR makes training its staff members a priority.”

OUCARES leaders share a variety of information, beginning with a brief primer on the disease and how to interact with individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder. The leaders discuss a variety of strategies that park staff members can take to help improve the quality of life of these individuals, focusing on steps to assist with self-determination, interpersonal skills, and emotional, physical, and material well-being, for example.

Autism impacts the way the brain processes information and affects individuals in four major areas:

  • Communication

  • Social interaction

  • Sensory integration

  • Learning styles.

OCPR supervisors have learned to recognize common characteristics of the autism spectrum and how to communicate more effectively by:

  • Dividing information into simple steps

  • Keeping verbal statements short

  • Maintaining a low voice

  • Slowing down the delivery of information.

OCPR staff members also have discovered how children with autism may obsess or become fixated over topics or engage in self-stimulating behaviors like rocking, jumping, rubbing hands, or chewing items. Having this information can help staff members better interact with patrons and react when situations arise on-site.

Supervisors also shared these strategies with parks helpers at the OUCARES Autism Camp.

Year-Round Efforts
By reinforcing the need for sensitivity and understanding during interactions with park patrons, leaders have encouraged OCPR staff members to continually develop strategies for making the parks system more inclusive, accessible, and enjoyable for all.

“The training for OCPR staff members was a one-time opportunity, but the lessons park supervisors took away from the training session has been repeatedly shared throughout the year with seasonal staff,” Stencil says. “The goal is to provide excellent customer service throughout the parks system.”

By purposefully engaging with individuals with autism, visitors can be more relaxed, as staff members give them more time to process information, use modeling and visuals to help them understand directions, and respect their space if they prefer not to be touched as they are guided through activities.

While the supervisor training session with OUCARES focuses specifically on interacting with individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder, its general message ultimately supports the entire community as staff members are reminded of the need for sensitivity and understanding during interactions with all park patrons on a daily basis.

Jane Peterson is Technical Assistant, Communication & Marketing for Oakland County Parks and Recreation in Michigan. Reach her at petersonjm@oakgov.com.