Multicultural Communities Experience AuSM Camp Through Pilot Family Camp Program

In October 2023, AuSM piloted a family camp session for Somali and Oromo families affected by autism. Anyone who’s been to camp knows it’s a powerful experience, but we now know that summer-camp feel comes on just as strong in the fall – during just one long weekend. For a glimpse into how AuSM’s multicultural work played out at camp, watch this video.

AuSM carefully pre-planned this camp experience – for autistic campers, siblings, and accompanying parents and grandparents – with our partners at Multicultural Autism Action Network (MAAN), Camp Knutson, and the DHS Innovations department through our ongoing DHS grant. Special attention was made to make sure that all spaces, meals, and activities felt welcoming and familiar to guests. Some facets or programming separated children and adults to create space for parents to dialogue about their experiences more deeply, and all adult sessions were, in part, facilitated by autistic adults.

Culturally, open dialogue about autism was relatively new to many of our participating families. “This is the first time I’ve talked about my autism in my own language – Somali,” said one of our autistic adult presenters, realizing in the moment that he was in new territory with and his community.

After gaining greater understanding of common characteristics of autistics, one camper’s parent said, “I think I might be autistic myself” – a lightbulb moment of acceptance shared by another mother who shared that she likewise intended to seek a diagnosis.

Kids and siblings were supervised by expert camp staff, and introduced to popular camp activities, many of which were new experiences for Somali and Oromo campers. Each day of program also prioritized time for families to enjoy programming together, so that we might center our experience around inclusive and judgment-free joy. One parent cautioned staff early on that their son didn’t like bikes – just before this camper self-regulated by hopping on and biking for over an hour.

A sampling of comments from Camp Knutson staff:

“The best part about working with these new families is providing an extremely positive experience for them and their children – one with no judgement, only love and support. Getting to experience the family members really let in the staff to their families and allow us to help take care of their children. In turn, they were so grateful and surprised that we can take care of and love their children as they do. I saw their walls break down and their trust in others build up, as well as seeing weight being taken off of their shoulders.”

“My favorite part was everything. Especially, being able to start at ground zero with a group that has never been to camp, then introducing them to the ‘simple’ things I deal with every day at camp and watching their eyes light up as we have introduced them to something new.”

“I loved getting to see families with their children and embracing what we know as camp. It was amazing to see the joy on their faces all weekend. It was also really cool to hear about how well the parent sessions went and that a majority of parents trusted us to care for their children while they were in session.”

“(Camper) joined my group halfway through morning rotations Saturday. He was not meant to be with our group, but we got him to join our group after he’d been doing his own thing most of the morning. At first, he was not interested in joining in on activities, but by the time we got to our second activity with him, nature, he began to become interested. His involvement continued to increase as the day went on. In the afternoon, he was very excited to go biking and, in the evening, even joined in on the dance with his mom. The next morning, he was a part of our group again and tried EVERY activity. Sometimes campers just need a little extra push or a little extra talking to in order to feel comfortable trying new things. He grew so much throughout the weekend, and it was truly incredible to witness.”

“Overall, the experience was enlightening, not only for myself, but for the families as well. They seemed to really enjoy spending quality time with their children in a new scenery, while not having to worry about caring for them on their own.” 

“Never stop this camp! It was truly magical and amazing!”

Plans are underway to extend camp opportunities for more multicultural families in AuSM’s community.

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