Commentary

Saunders: Here's a place where families with autism can get a break

bsaunders@newsobserver.comApril 2, 2013 

Here’s a riddle: Is Camp Royall in Chatham County a highly regarded summer camp for children with autism – or is it a highly regarded summer camp for the parents of children with autism?

Even David Laxton, a spokesman for the Autism Society of North Carolina, had to ponder that one.

Every parent needs a respite from the constant vigilance required by their children, even the most well-adjusted, mature ones, right? Children with autism often require even more vigilance, which can be mentally, physically and emotionally draining on parents and children alike.

That’s probably why Laxton said of the event at the camp Tuesday “We’re calling it a ‘family fun day.’ ”

Autism numbers climb

Tuesday is also World Autism Awareness Day. Given the frightening growth in the number of reported autism cases nationally, it’s hard to imagine that everyone is not already aware of it. The rate of growth looks like a misprint, even after you double-check the figures.

For instance, in the 1980s and early 1990s, the autism rate in American children was listed at one in 10,000. By 2009, CDC statistics put the figure at one in 110. Today, some sources place the figure as high as one in 50, although Laxton said the Autism Society cites the more conservative – but equally distressing – one in 88 figure.

In North Carolina, he said, it is one in 70.

Laxton said the higher reported number of cases is due in part to “increased awareness among professionals. ... In the past, where they might’ve just concluded that ‘Oh, (the child’s) language is delayed,’ they now know more about additional signs and symptoms to look for. ... Parents know more because there is more information out there, there are characters on TV shows and in movies who have autism or a condition of it.”

Walk-ins welcome Tuesday

Go to Camp Royall Tuesday between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. “Show up,” Laxton said. “We’ll be cooking out and we have extra food. We want people to know what we do. There are still some stereotypes, some stigmas, associated with autism, and families still may not know where they can go” for help.

Indeed, Laxton said, thousands of families with autistic children have moved to the Triangle precisely because of the world-class medical and support resources they have access to here.

Before the Society went to a lottery system, he said, “We had people who would drive six hours just to have their paperwork slid under the door on the day it had to be turned in.”

Autism may seem like a relatively new phenomenon, but the Autism Society has been sponsoring a camp for autistic children since 1972, Laxton said: “We had six kids and six volunteers, and they put up tents and literally went camping.”

Good for kids and parents

This year, he said, he expects between 350 to 360 children, selected through a lottery process, to participate in the myriad summer programs the camp offers. “It’s an overnight camp. They drop them off on Sunday and pick them up on Friday,” he said. “We’re the providers, we take care of them and offer them a full week of recreational activities and social-skills-building and friendship-building.

“For a lot of parents,” Laxton said, “that might be the only time throughout the year that they get a break, where somebody else is the primary caregiver.”

Okay, that answers the riddle, then: Camp Royall is a highly regarded camp for children with autism – and for their parents.

bsaunders@newsobserver.com or 919-836-2811

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