Camp for kids on the autism spectrum one of a kind
A blonde five-year-old tried to focus on the small orb in front of him, but a tiny fleck of nature bedeviled him.
“A fly got in my eye!” he exclaimed, wriggling in frustration before swatting at the pest . . . thankfully not with his specially adapted golf club.
“You’re okay,” his golf buddy redirected him. “Ready? Swing, straight back and straight through.”
The boy recovered, checked his form and thwacked the ball with his biomechanically designed driver. This was a good one. The ball shot across the green of the Raymond Memorial Golf Course. A small crowd erupted into cheers as if he were Jack Nicklaus. The boy squealed in delight, proof that being on the autism spectrum can’t keep a kid from playing — and loving — golf.
Variations of the scene played out throughout last June’s Whole in One Golf Camp — the first hosted by the college, and the first of its kind in Ohio for children on the autism spectrum. Jae Westfall, Sport Health and Fitness program director, couldn’t have been more thrilled.
“I was called to do this,” she said.
Filling a need
The idea had come to her the year before. How could the university better use space in the Recreational and Physical Activity Center during slow summer months?
“It hit me: No one’s serving the special needs population exclusively,” she said. “Nobody’s doing this anywhere, and I’m shocked at how underserved this population is in regards to sports skills.”
Westfall recruited golf pro Kelly Trent (’82), head professional at Raymond Memorial, and Anne LaDuke (’88 MA), adapted physical education specialist with Fairfield County Educational Services. They secured adapted golf gear from Starting New at Golf, which designs clubs and balls for beginners.
Four camps met for four days last June to learn golfing fundamentals at the RPAC, then each capped off with a round of golf at the course.
About 40 percent of children with autism spectrum disorder do not speak; those who do have difficulty. Speech pathologists were on hand to use a system of picture communication boards to alternatively interact with the children.
“If a child doesn’t have vocabulary to say, ‘I want the purple golf ball,’ then a visual schedule gives them a voice and an opportunity to explore what they want,” LaDuke said, “versus having a meltdown because nobody understands what they’re trying to get across.”
Specialized instruction for kids
At the rec center, a young golfer squirmed with energy. Realizing he was high functioning, the team made a series of signs with special instructions and messages for him: Stand on the X. If the X is red, it’s a safety spot. The boy quietly perched himself on the spot.
“This is a kid we had been chasing,” Westfall said. “It wasn’t enough for him just to stand there. He had to know why. We had to engage his mind.”
One of the most profoundly affected children fixated on fluorescent lights in the rec center. An intervention specialist used her cell phone to redirect his focus. The team wore headlamps on subsequent days to keep his attention.
“We started by sitting across from him on the floor and rolling the ball,” Westfall said. “Then we pushed the ball to simulate the putter.
“Every day his mom would be like, ‘I asked Carson if he wants to take a break.’ He never missed a day. He loved that camp,” Westfall said.
That one-on-one attention is not part of the mainstream camps that Kelley Chretien tried for her daughter, Phoebe.
“It’s hard to integrate a kid with special needs when they have a limited attention span,” Chretien said. “As the difficulty level increases, it’s a little too fast paced. It was not ideal for her.”
But on the green, Phoebe was all smiles as she whacked the ball.
“Whew! She got air underneath that one,” Westfall exclaimed.
A sport that appeals
Historically, golf has had special appeal for people on the autism spectrum. Donald Triplett, who received the first diagnosis of autism more than 70 years ago, played golf almost daily. Moe Norman, one of the best ball-strikers ever, was considered by many to be autistic.
No definitive studies have been done — yet — but the theory is autistic people like the solitary nature of golf and the repetition of swinging clubs.
Children on the autism spectrum need to have their strengths accentuated, said LaDuke.
“In my opinion, there’s no better way to do that than with a game of golf,” she said. “It’s an individual sport. You can be your own individual and yet have success. They hit a ball; they see instant motion. They see the ball go into the hole and know they’ve accomplished what they were meant to do. It’s immediate success.”
Phoebe was just as enthused when fellow-camper Gabby hit the target flag to “sink” her shot. Golf buddy Sam Ballengee, a senior in human development and family science, high-fived Gabby.
Children on the autism spectrum are not competitive the way some kids can be at mainstream sports camps.
“You should have seen them with each other,” Westfall said. “The kids recognized they had an opportunity and they were all going to help each other. The higher functioning ones were helping the others.”
Kids become teachers
Near the end of camp, golfers taught a lesson in front of the group. Phoebe, who hadn’t spoken throughout the camp, announced, “I will be teaching the chip shot,” and gave a flawless lesson.
It was if someone turned on a switch. “Man, she did great,” Westfall said.
“I’m not a person who is very outwardly emotional. I got tears in my eyes just looking at how happy these kids were. They didn’t know anybody; it was a new place; we were asking them to do something new. You could tell they were just thrilled to have the opportunity.”