ABA at UTSA will be holding Camp Durango for the second year in a row. This summer camp for children with autism and their siblings focuses on fostering communication, social and adaptive skills through applied behavior analysis (ABA). It is part of ABA at UTSA, a group of university faculty, staff, and students who conduct research and complete service projects to support the field of behavior analysis within the local community.
According to Katie Cantrell, a board-certified behavior analyst, special research associate for the Department of Educational Psychology, and project manager for Camp Durango, the origins of the camp stem from a 2020 grant to help Texas teachers become board-certified behavior analysts. But with classrooms off limits due to pandemic restrictions, and students unhappy with remote learning, the plan changed slightly. Cantrell had long harbored a desire to integrate behavior analysis into a summer camp environment, a desire shared by ABA at UTSA research and associate professor Leslie Neely.
“We were thinking we definitely needed to do something over the summer when teachers are available and kids need something to do,” Cantrell said. “So we developed Camp Durango.”
Cantrell says the summer of 2021 proved a perfect opportunity to get their camp up and running and embed the behavior analysis interventions in a fun, natural environment while helping teachers connect with the students and provide the various support they needed.
This year, Camp Durango will be shifting its focus away from teacher training and emphasizing research. As the camp progressed last year, Cantrell said the team saw the opportunity to study the effect of the behavior analysis techniques outside of the more typical lab setting. Now they hope to quantify and measure the impact these interventions and camp activities are having on the children who attend.
“We want to be 100% transparent with all of our campers’ families that it is research, but it’s fun research,” Cantrell said.
The research at Camp Durango will comprise seven projects, covering a variety of topics. Researchers will study the integration of technology and learning, using apps to bolster math learning and video modeling to teach play skills. Other projects will explore alternative means of communication for children with challenging behaviors, hopefully giving them better methods to express their needs. While still other research questions will address how sleep quality influences the effectiveness of ABA interventions in children with autism.
However, while the camp will be largely devoted to research, Cantrell says this is not their only aim.
“It’s really important to me that while we’re engaging in all of this research and we’re progressing the field of behavior analysis, we’re also making sure the kids are just having a lot of fun,” she said. “We’re going to do a lot of messy crafts and science experiments – we love a good slime situation over here. We’re going to do tons of obstacle courses and scavenger hunts and make a lot of trail mix kind of things and integrate these research pieces into those super-fun day camp activities.”
So far, Cantrell says the community response has been tremendous. In fact, the team hasn’t even solicited applications yet and already has a waitlist for the 120 spots available this summer. There are numerous reasons for this popularity. One is that Camp Durango is the only summer camp in the greater San Antonio area that accepts children with challenging behavioral needs, a population the ABA at UTSA team specializes in working with. Camp Durango is also free to participating families, meaning that kids who couldn’t afford to go to other camps have a chance to attend this one. Another factor in the camp’s success is that it welcomes not only children with autism, but their siblings as well. Cantrell, whose youngest sister has autism, believes this is especially important.
“We like to include siblings in all of our programming,” Cantrell said. “It is essential for us to include siblings to provide them with the one-on-one camper-counselor experiences and support a lifelong appreciation for inclusivity and advocacy.”
In addition to serving children with autism and their siblings, Camp Durango is also a boon to their parents and caretakers. Cantrell says that these caretakers frequently feel uncomfortable leaving their children in the care of other people, who may not have the ability to attend to all of their needs. Camp Durango offers these caretakers a chance to relax, go to work, or even shop for groceries, without worrying about their children, something which many have been unable to do for years.
“I’m so excited that we get to support our caregivers in this way, it just makes me so happy – I love this job, it’s awesome.”
“I’m so excited that we get to support our caregivers in this way, it just makes me so happy – I love this job, it’s awesome,” Cantrell said.
While there is a waitlist for campers, Cantrell says the team is still looking or volunteer counselors. Anyone sixteen years or older can apply to be one of the many volunteers the camp needs to play with the campers, set up the activities, and support the researchers in their work. Those interested in volunteering can go to visit www.abautsa.com/camp to learn more.
Going forward, Cantrell hopes that Camp Durango can continue to serve students in San Antonio for years to come. She also hopes that the camp can also illustrate that research isn’t an intimidating process performed by faceless scientists in sterile laboratories.
“It doesn’t have to be scary or awkward or invasive,” Cantrell said, “research can be conducted in really natural and fun environments. That makes it easier for the participants, and more comfortable for the family,” she added.
Whether by increasing families’ access to ABA services, helping siblings of children with autism learn more about the condition, or enhancing kids’ communication, academic, or behavioral skills, ultimately Camp Durango is about improving the lives of the children who attend and their families.
“One of the best parts of our job is being able to not only help an individual find their voice, but setting up an environment that’s going to listen and respond,” Cantrell said.
This work was supported in whole or in part by a grant from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB). The opinions and conclusions expressed in this document are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policy of the THECB. Award #22987/26525, PI Neely
– Christopher Reichert