July 18, 2019 7:08 pm
Updated: July 18, 2019 7:25 pm

Alberta camp helps kids with autism conquer fears, break stereotypes

WATCH: An overnight summer camp run by the Autism Aspergers Friendship Society of Calgary is helping ease the anxiety some kids on the spectrum feel in new social settings. Deb Matejicka reports.


A Calgary-area organization is ensuring kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) can successfully experience a childhood rite of passage: summer camp.

“Kids with autism, they’re put inside a box a lot of their life of what they’re allowed to do, what they’re able to do,” said Dean Svoboda, executive director of Autism Aspergers Friends Society of Calgary (AAFS).

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READ MORE: Autism, explained: What’s the spectrum and how it develops

He added limitations are also often put on kids who are on the spectrum. Svodboda used camping as an example of activities not generally offered to them but says that activity, in particular, can offer so much.

“The weather changes on a moment’s notice and you have to get a tarp set up or everybody wants to go on a hike and you want to do something different. How do you… collaborate and cooperate and make decisions as a group?” he asked, pointing out the problem-solving opportunities camping can present.

Svoboda also highlighted independent skills like cooking and setting up camp that kids can also learn while out in the wilderness.

“Everything we do is letting them explore and express and learn for themselves what they can do and for us to teach them new skills,” said Svoboda.

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Skills, that for the last 13 years, AAFS has been teaching kids at its overnight summer camp.

The not-for-profit started with just two camping trips in its first year and this summer, will take kids out into the wilds of Kananaskis on 21 separate outings.

Kim Bienert is headed to her first overnight camp with AAFS this week.

“I’m really excited,” said Bienert, as she sat drawing a picture of the teepee she would be staying in at camp.

The 10 year old, who also has an older sister on the autism spectrum, admitted that as much as she was looking forward to the trip, she did have some concerns about what she might find in her teepee.

“I’m kind of a scared for spiders,” she admitted.

It may seem like a minor concern, but for a kid on the spectrum, that fear can be debilitating.

“A lot of anxiety. I think anxiety is the key,” explained Kim’s mom, Michelle Siegel, of the impact certain fears can have on a child.

“So to worry about: ‘What if I see a spider? What if the wind happens? What if there’s a thunderstorm?’ That can be paralyzing where they don’t want to go out… they want to stay at home,” she said.

Social settings, including camping in a group, can evoke that same sort of anxiety, which can make making friends difficult. It’s another area where the AAFS camp excels.

“Our staff, front-line staff titles are ‘social experience guides’ so they’re not aids, they’re not attendants, they’re caregivers but they’re there to help youth navigate that social world,” said Svoboda.

Staff’s expertise comes from first-hand experience. Almost all camp counselors are former AAFS campers and they have the unique ability to relate and understand how best to support their charges.

READ MORE: Research on autism in Indigenous communities to be conducted

“Growing up, I didn’t have many friends or very many supports and part of why I take so much pride in working here and being with our members here is because a lot of our guides have had similar struggles,” said Social Experience Guide and former AAFS camper, Liam McGinnis.

“I just want to make sure no kid ever has to deal with some the stuff I had to deal with growing up,” he added.

Siegel admits her daughter could become overwhelmed at camp, especially if she actually comes across a spider, but Siegel says she is confident in the staff’s ability to handle whatever could come their way.

“The staff are very skilled. They’ll have strategies in place. They’ll know what to do,” she said.

But if for some reason they’re unprepared for spiders, Bienert has made sure she is.

“We have bug spray so spiders won’t come to me.”

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