How These Kids With Autism Learned Social Skills At Zookeeper Camp


The Autism Society of Minnesota recently teamed up with the Lake Superior Zoo in Duluth, Minnesota to create a special program aimed at educating and helping local youth with autism. The kids experienced everything from a hands-on meet-and-greet with bearded dragons to watching a cougar eat.

The inaugural session took place from August 24-27, and participants spent time both in the classroom and with the animals at the zoo.

The Autism Society of Minnesota

The camp was designed to help kids with autism improve social skills while learning about the animals and their behavior.

After introductions on the first day, the kids tagged along with a zookeeper to watch staffers feed a cougar, and they also stopped by the bear and leopard exhibits. After that, they spent time bonding with Applesauce the hedgehog and Milton the tortoise, and following a brief lecture, everyone was able to pet and feed the critters.

The Autism Society of Minnesota

In the following days, the group learned about the importance of providing enrichment to the animals at the zoo, and one of the counselors turned that into a lesson about communication, with the help of some bearded dragons.

“Bearded dragons greet each other by waving,” Brenda Schrader-Johnson, the camp’s lead teacher, told The Mighty, “[so we explained to the kids] that friends provide enrichment to each other by using greetings. Friends can say things like ‘hello’ and ‘how are you’ to make each other feel happy.”

Instructors also spoke to students about nonverbal communication and how to express feelings without using words.

The Autism Society of Minnesota

The Autism Society of Minnesota’s Jill Pring explained why the critters were essential in the creation this program.

“In school, there might be one or two students in their classrooms on the autism spectrum, and they don’t really seem to fit in,” Pring tells The Mighty. “It’s hard to read other people, it’s a little bit easier when it’s animals. It’s not as stressful and as complicated.”

The Autism Society of Minnesota
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