How These Kids With Autism Learned Social Skills At Zookeeper Camp

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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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My Son’s Autism Has Made Me as Strong as a Diamond

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Dear Autism:

I hate your guts.

My life would be so much better if I never met you. You shattered the dreams I had for my child and my family.

I never envisioned the screaming, destructive tantrums that have lasted long past the terrible twos. I never envisioned that my son — born to two Ivy League-educated parents — would need an IEP and be labeled “special ed.” I never envisioned that simple things other families take for granted, like going out to dinner or taking vacations, could be so incredibly hard that often it’s just easier to not do those things at all.

You ruined the dreams I had for my son, who will most likely not go to college, live independently, get married, or have children of his own. You crept into my brain and filled my head with fears of him getting teased, bullied, or worse, because he is different and therefore vulnerable.

I shouldn’t forgive you for what you did. But I do. Why? Because forgiving you takes away your power over me. You tried to crush my spirit, drown me in anxiety and self-pity, and snuff out my hope for the future. You almost succeeded. Almost.

katherine jenkins andrew the mighty

Did you know that diamonds are the hardest naturally occurring substances on earth? Did you know that they are formed under unbearably intense heat and pressure? Let me tell you something, Autism. I am that diamond. And it was you who made me the person I am today. You’ve made me stronger, more resilient, creative, compassionate, humble, and resourceful that I ever imagined I could be. I am the parent of a special needs child, and you should know that we are the strongest naturally occurring substances on earth. You can’t break us.

You’ve given me a purpose in life: to be there for my son, and to advocate and care for him until the day I die. And, when I can, to share my experiences with others so people who also have you in their lives know they’re not alone.

I don’t know who decided to bring you into my life and I don’t know if I believe it when people say, “Things happen for a reason.” What I do know is that I have a very special kid who has an amazing ability to break down social barriers even though he himself faces many barriers. Without hesitation, he’ll greet store cashiers by name after reading their name tags and ask them things like, “Do you like Coca-Cola?” or “Do you have a GPS?” Strangers who look like their faces have been frozen in a perpetual frown will be smiling after they encounter my son. Yes, he’s a little (OK, maybe very) odd, but he reminds us of what we often forget as we rush through our daily lives with blinders on: the importance of human connection.

Don’t get me wrong, Autism. I still hate your guts. But — and I didn’t think I would ever say this — thank you.

Sincerely,

Andrew’s mom

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