Camp for Kids With Autism Offers Extreme Therapy

A Colorado camp uses adrenaline rush as therapy for kids with autism.

ByJohn Donvan
August 26, 2009, 11:46 AM

Aug. 31, 2009— -- Consider what it does to the senses when you're in a kayak on the Colorado River and you hit white water. You can't hear anything but the water. There's spray in your face. Violent drops. Wicked turns. And fear -- moments when the river seems to be in control, not you. In short, it's total sensory overload, a total adrenaline rush.

But if you have autism -- like most kids at the Extreme Sports Camp near Aspen, Colo. -- it's overload times 20, or times 100. And that's the point: to take kids to their limits, and beyond.

"It's got to be visceral," said Doug Gilstrap, 47, who has run the camp since it launched in 2001. "It's stimulating, it's super-intense. And, actually, the more intense it is, the better they are on the other end."

It's about taking kids to the extreme, the kids who have difficulties with extremes in everyday life, he said.

"Many times our kids, campers have a lot of behavior issues or a lot of sensory issues that they just can't handle," Gilstrap said. "It's too cold, it's too hot, it's too bright. All those sorts of things can cause a lot of problems."

Watch the full story on an upcoming edition of "Nightline" at 11:35 p.m. ET

Visit the Extreme Sports Camp Web site HERE

For a family resource guide to camps for kids with autism, visit the Autism Speaks Web site HERE.

The kids here, ages 5 and up, represent the many different ways autism can take shape. Quinn, like several kids at the week-long camp, barely speaks, while Johnny talks and talks. The girls are more physically timid than most of the boys, while a few kids, like Josh, are athletically gifted.

One of Josh's challenges was to take on a steep rock wall.

"So, with any person, a new thing can bring about some fear and some apprehension," Gilstrap said. "It's even heightened with autism. A situation that forces focus, like here, knowing where to put your feet, figuring out what piece of rock to grab onto -- you can see Josh working it through, 50 feet up, and then the rappel back down.

"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."

Back on the ground, Josh was asked if it was a hard ascent.

"It was hard, yes," he said, adding that he found all the cracks he needed.

"The greater the adrenaline shock that I can put to the system -- the brain, the body and the endorphin rush that comes in post-adrenaline rush -- is what gets them the most relaxation and calm," Gilstrap said. "When they are back in a normal situation, they have better capacity to be in control."

Internal struggle is visible on many of the campers' faces, as they move over ropes high above the ground.

The Extreme Sports Camp features ropes that go over a river and back again, and then run up to tree level. While every kid is in a safety harness -- they can't fall to the ground -- the kids can still slip off the line as they try to cross it, and do.

"Some kids need a little more pushing and some need a little less," Gilstrap said. "If the kid doesn't need pushing, I don't come and push -- I just let them do their own thing."

Gilstrap tried to coax a camper named Johnny to try the ropes.

"You go first," Johnny said.

"Are you scared?" Gilstrap said. "That's the way you learn from it."

Johnny moved tentatively along a rope.

"You're doing great -- I'm proud of you, Johnny," Gilstrap said. "Turn your feet upriver. I'm very proud of you -- stand up, Johnny. Did your legs stop working?"

"I have lousy legs," the camper said.

"No, you don't have lousy legs," came Gilstrap's reply.

Autism Camp: A Taste of the Extreme

Gilstrap said he wants the campers to struggle, but only so much. If the campers get too scared or excited, he said, they can't move forward.

"With that heightened apprehension, if we make it over that hump and on to the other side," he said, "then we get what we're looking for."

They make it as fun as they can. At the end of the treetop rope course is a wonderful zip-line glide back down to Earth.

Gilstrap has also built a special device to help the campers go waterskiing. He described how he learned to work with kids with autism.

"I just studied it and watched how they did things," he said, "and I picked up on a way of interacting with them on whatever they were focused on. It's just a way of touch. Touch can be a very calming thing. Like, again for Josh, I can just reach over and touch him and he'll go [exhales slowly]. Just with the touch. I don't say a single word to him."

Each child is assigned his or her own counselor for the full week. It's what makes it possible in the first place for a kid to step on that wire or hang onto that wall, or just to get through the bus rides between events.

But the real signal that the camp works: Most of the campers come back, year after year -- for another taste of the extreme.

Visit the Extreme Sports Camp Web site HERE

For a family resource guide to camps for kids with autism, visit the Autism Speaks Web site HERE.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events