Greenville teenagers with autism work on their communication skills at Camp Kerby, a program developed by an ECU graduate student. The camp helps teens with autism by providing opportunities to practice conversation, electronic communication and personal interactions. (Photos by Cliff Hollis)
CHANGING LIVES Teens with autism build self-confidence during ECU camp
For teenagers with autism, the normal challenges of high school are amplified. East Carolina University is hosting a summer camp for autistic teens to nurture interpersonal skills and build confidence.
Logan Barefoot, an ECU graduate student in child development and family relations, developed Camp Kerby to help motivated teens with autism learn ways to establish and maintain relationships.
ECU graduate student Logan Barefoot, pictured above, created Camp Kerby to help teens with autism.
People with autism spectrum disorder often have severe language deficits and trouble relating to others, according to the Autism Society of North Carolina.
The camp is taking place over ten half-day sessions during which the seven teens from four Pitt County schools learn and practice various interaction techniques, wrapping up with a graduation ceremony on Aug.14.
“The first day was focused on conversation skills. The second day was two-way interactions and electronic communication, and next we’re learning about choosing an appropriate group of friends,” Barefoot said. She organized the camp as part of her graduate research project, so it was offered free of charge to the teens.
Sixteen-year-old Patrick Vallandingham, a rising junior at J.H. Rose High School, said he has been in speech therapy for several years, but the camp is helping him to “handle his anger and communicate with people better online and offline.” He said he’s made a few good friends from the camp and thinks the skills he’s learning will really help him long-term.
The main goal of Camp Kerby is to instill self-confidence in the teens by escalating the complexity of their social exchanges throughout the two weeks.
In one-on-one settings, K-Buddies take on assigned stereotypes and converse with campers.
“We want students to not only understand the social skills being taught but also to increase the quantity and quality of their interactions,” Barefoot said. “My biggest hope is that it will boost their confidence levels and help them find a group of friends in which they feel a sense of acceptance.”
Barefoot noted the importance of teaching lessons that are cumulative. “This program is a stair-step model, so it builds every single day. If we just continue at this pace, I have no doubt that they’ll all come out with something exceptional,” she said.
ECU undergraduate students are serving as one-on-one coaches, or “K-Buddies,” for the campers. Many of them are majoring in special education or recreational therapy, so the hands-on experience they’re gaining is also beneficial to them.
Allegra Modlin, a rising senior at ECU studying psychology, is Vallandingham’s K-Buddy.
“(During Camp Kerby) I’ve seen how everyone learns at their own pace,” she said. “It’s been a great learning process for everyone involved, and the campers have taught us a lot about social skills too,” she said.
Barefoot named the camp in honor of a friend from high school who inspired her; Kerby was the first person she knew with autism.
They built a close bond through their teenage years, and she was amazed at his progression over time. “As I tried to change his life, he ended up changing mine,” she said.
Camper Patrick Vallandingham, left, interacts with his K-Buddy Allegra Modlin, center, and Amee Little. Modlin is an ECU psychology major.