Extreme Sports Camp FAQs

Extreme Sports Camp features activities such as waterskiing and rock climbing for autistic children.ABC News
Extreme Sports Camp director Doug Gilstrap with a camper. "We've built the camp around, sort of, not to use the word 'extreme,' like 'extreme games,'" Gilstrap said. "It's extreme in the sense that all the activities are visceral."

Published courtesy of Extreme Sports Camp

What do you offer kids who come to camp?

We have summer and winter programs. In 2009 we offered 2 weekly sessions at Lake Powell in Utah, which focused on boating sports – skiing, kneeboarding, wakeboarding, surfing, and tubing. Plus we had hiking and exploring the desert terrain around the lake. This summer we also offered 7 weekly sessions in the Aspen Colorado area. These sessions focused on 3 core sports: boating, river sports – kayaking and rafting, and climbing – indoor walls, outdoor cliff climbs, repelling, rock hopping, and tyrolean lines – and a challenge ropes course.

VIDEO: Autistic girl communicates through typingPlay

Our winter program consists of skiing, boarding, and après-ski activities. Surrounding the sports is a heavy social immersion component. Campers have continuous contact with staff who is there to support them. Campers are the center of constant positive attention.

The days are long, from 8:00 am until 6:00-7:00 pm, but the ebb and flow of the day is tempered for the camper's individual stamina. Campers come back to the camp house tired but satisfied and fulfilled. They generally sleep well and in many cases communicative speech improves. Many gain a new sense of confidence and self-advocacy.

What is Extreme Sports Camp's learning approach that makes it effective?

We believe in sports immersion, where a participant can be in the sport and learning it, without necessarily know they are doing so, because the approach is naturalistic but also supported. There is no tuning out the learning because the participant is in the midst of doing it. The brain takes over and awareness and learning become automatic. Because the activity is so fun, campers want to do it. Doing the sports can increase anxiety, but the participant has many chances to overcome the fears and comes away with a sense of accomplishment.

Our learning philosophy and approach is holistic based on a neurodevelopmental understanding of autism spectrum disorders. The model draws from occupational therapy theories and the importance of active engagement in meaningful and purposeful activities and the science of applied behavior analysis. The core beliefs of the model incorporate the importance of positive, reciprocal relationships with people with autism spectrum disorders and understanding principles of learning to efficiently and effectively teach skills. Positive behavior support is used to understand unwanted behaviors, teach new skills and set up a successful environment.

Our senior instructor and innovator, Doug Gilstrap, is a gifted coach and instructor. From the beginning, Doug naturally builds motivation and successful experiences for novice and experienced campers alike. Motivation is created within the activity allowing the camper to experience the height of the activity with support as needed. Following initial exhilarating and positive experiences a camper's program is designed with multiple opportunities to practice target skills gradually increasing independence. On going assessment, activity analysis and adaptation with equipment is key to individualizing instruction plans. The techniques Doug uses are inherent in the principles of learning including; shaping, chaining and prompting and integral in occupational therapy practice.

What are your safety procedures?

Whitewater rafting is undertaken through the auspices of certified, licensed outfitters. Campers wear life preservers and helmets on the river. Wall and rock climbing and rappelling as well as our ropes challenge course are also supervised by licensed, experienced instructors. Campers wear safety harnesses at all times while climbing. On outdoor rocks, counselors or instructors climb ropes parallel to campers, offering side-by-side instruction and support. Our powerboats for skiing and tubing are driven by experienced boatmen, have center motors rather than outboard motors, and have platforms. Life preservers are worn at all times. We have a satellite phone on the boats for ship-to-shore emergency communication. Swimming pools have trained lifeguards.

The first day's activities (Monday) are less strenuous than those slated for later in the week. This schedule allows campers to become acclimated to the higher altitude, heat, and drier air of the Aspen area. Campers are monitored for signs of altitude sickness and hyperthermia. Camp staff makes adequate hydration a priority. Drinks and healthy snacks are provided during the day. We carry a camping tent with us to activities to have an on-site cool, comfortable area to relax, chill, or rest, as needed.

Although our adventures can take us into wilderness areas, campers are never more than 5 miles from a road and the camp vehicles. Modern hospitals are within 25 miles of any activity. Our staff is trained in CPR and first aid. One of our most critical safety tools is the one-on-one oversight of campers. We carry a photo of each camper in the camp vehicle in case the camper is lost, and each camper carries an ID tag on their clothes or backpack.

Please note that we do engage in outdoor athletic activities that pose some degree of risk. If a camper poses a safety hazard to him/herself or others due to behavioral or emotional dysregulation, senior staff trained in CPI, a non-violent crisis intervention program for behavior management, utilize such techniques only when other positive methods have failed. CPI is a technique used for deescalating potentially harmful situations. CPI is the most widely used program in the world for the effective management of disruptive behavior.

Does my child have to be a super athlete to attend Extreme Sports Camp?

No, not at all. Campers at any level of fitness, gross motor skill, and athletic prowess can be successful. Our sports are individualized, so a camper starts at the most appropriate level and moves ahead from there. We have had campers who can barely walk on a forest trail, all the way to ones who compete in triathelons. It is our goal to give them the instruction needed to advance and the set up to gain in fitness. We find that many people with ASD have been unfairly designated as "unathletic" when actually they haven't been given true access to recreation. When given the opportunity, they can be as accomplished as anyone else and are highly motivated to make sports part of their lives.

My child gets fatigued easily. Won't he get too tired from all these activities?

Fatigue is not uncommon in the ASD population. We work around this. If tired, a camper can scale back on an activity, opt out of it, or do a substitute one. Stamina generally increases over the course of a session. Each activity is interspersed with a transition time when campers are traveling to the next acitvity site. This provides several opportunities throughout the day for rest and recuperation.

Many parents are surprised that their child can actually handle a long day out on the road. Campers frequently return at the end of the day feeling relaxed, more pro-active, and talkative, and they enjoy a good night's sleep.

My child tends to get anxious. Will coming to camp be too stressful?

Traveling to Aspen, staying in a new place, and trying new activities can be stressful. We find that the first night here is the most stressful, but anxiety levels generally dissipate as the week progresses. Campers get comfortable at camp, settle into the routine, and thrive on the attention from the staff and opportunities for fun.

We use positive approaches with lots of encouragement and our counselors interact like supporters/friends, which tend to reduce anxiety and increase comfort levels. We use visual supports, like visual schedules and social stories (see examples below), so campers can know what will happen next and what is expected of them. These tools can also reduce stress. We engage in breathing and body awareness exercises which give participants the mechanisms to calm themselves.

So, our answer is that anxiety is not a barrier to coming to camp!