By STEVEN NALLEY
Ask Daniel Mooney to name the lessons he learned at Camp Jigsaw, and he will count them up on his fingers as he names them.
“Start with the eye contact, look straight in the face, use polite body language, make sure you keep a straight face and keep the conversation going (and) end the conversation (politely),” Mooney said.
Ask Mooney to name the friends he met at Camp Jigsaw, and he will name all of them — fellow campers, counselors and camp leaders alike. He will still try to count them by hand, but he will run out of fingers quickly.
Mooney spent this past week at Camp Jigsaw, a Mississippi State University camp for adolescent boys and young men on the autism spectrum.
Sandy Devlin, a curriculum, instruction and special education professor at MSU, said the camp functions as a capstone course for special education graduate students, who are each matched with one of the campers as counselors to help them develop stronger social skills, overcome fears and anxieties and develop independence. Campers are also grouped with members of their age group who are not on the autism spectrum, whom Devlin calls “typically-developing peers.”
“They basically work in threes so we can reinforce proper social reactions ... and we get really good outcomes,” Devlin said. “We’re also increasing awareness for the typically-developing peers that people with autism spectrum disorders are more like them than they are different. They want friends, they want to build relationships and sometimes they need a little more encouraging to reach the same goal. (Typically-developing peers learn) that people on the spectrum are not intentionally rude. The more we raise awareness, the better it is for everyone.”
Devlin said one in 88 boys are born on the autism spectrum, so she encourages the peers to share what they learn at Camp Jigsaw with others and spread awareness. Like all people, she said, people on the autism spectrum have weaknesses and strengths.
“We had a talent show (Thursday) night, and we encouraged all the campers to look within themselves and find their strengths,” Devlin said. “I was so amazed at some of the hidden talents we would not otherwise have seen. They’ve never showcased their abilities because of their shyness.”
One of the counselors, MSU ACCESS instructor Brecken Rush, said the talent show was a highlight of her week, revealing the campers as talented impressionists, singers, drummers, comedians and more. She said she was also touched to see students who came to Camp Jigsaw with few or no friends bond with each other. Other activities this week included making pottery at Howell Hall, exercise at the Sanderson Center, dining at Perry Cafeteria, roping plastic bulls and riding real horses at the Mills family farm, bowling at Bulldog Lanes and a trip to Lake Tiak-O-Khata, Rush said. All these activities were interwoven with intensive sessions to bolster the campers’ social skills.
“We had sessions on proper ways to communicate using eye contact, using appropriate body language and being respectful during communication,” Rush said. “We did roleplay and particular scenarios with peers that helped them learn how to react in certain situations.”
One counselor, Alex Orsak, has a high-functioning form of autism called Asperger’s syndrome, and he is now president of Jigsaw MSU, a campus organization for students on the autism spectrum. Orsak has developed strong control over many of his autistic tendencies, but he said this control is mostly self-taught.
“I did not receive, really, any intervention, because my parents did not know I had Asperger’s,” Orsak said. “They had seen a psychologist who had told them it was a possibility, but they were in denial. Because of that denial, I did not learn as quickly as I could have, but luckily, autism in my family is mostly high-functioning, so I was able to do a lot of the things other kids could do. I just had trouble with the social aspect. I learned what people do and do not like, especially when people have to hurt you (emotionally) to get the point across.”
Orsak said he wants to spare adolescents with autism from having to learn the hard way as he did. He said being on the autism spectrum himself helps him connect with the campers and help them correct themselves.
“It gives me the courage to tell it to them like it is,” Orsak said. “Kids might have anxieties when they’re told the truth about their habits. People who are not on the spectrum are nervous around kids with autism because they are worried about giving them instructions. Having Asperger’s, I don’t have that fear.”
Sometimes, the activities served as the most crucial lessons of all. For instance, another counselor, Niki Mulrooney, said some campers faced a fear of heights at Lake Tiak-O-Khata.
“There were a few students who were very afraid of the slides,” Mulrooney said. “They were shaking as they went down, but they actually overcame their fear. Seeing them do that, and swim in the lake, that was amazing. It just encourages me in my life to know I can face my fears if they can do it.”
Price Broadhead, said he was one of the campers who feared the heights of Lake Tiak-O-Khata’s water slide. When he faced his fears, he said, it felt “like a big rush.”
“I knew that I was safe because I was around good people,” Broadhead said. “Back home, I wasn’t always around people.”
Mooney said he wasn’t afraid of the slide at Lake Tiak-O-Khata, but he, too, faced a fear of heights climbing the rock wall at the Sanderson Center. He, too, found the trip to the top well worth it.
“I said to myself, whatever I do, don’t look down,” Mooney said. “I told everybody, ‘I’m on top of the world.’”