LAKEWOOD RANCH - Finding a summer camp for a child diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder is a difficult task, complicated by the cost, which could exceed $1,500 for an entire summer, because of the specialized nature of the program and low student-teacher ratios.
Beyond the Spectrum, a year-round nonprofit education and therapeutic center for children, ages 4-13 diagnosed with a range of autism and related disabilities, is asking for donations to help send area children with high-functioning autism to its six-week summer camp, which began last week.
During the school year, Beyond the Spectrum provides scholarships to needy families through several grant programs. However, scholarships for summer camp are hard to come by, and that's why the school is in need of about $25,000 to send an autistic child to camp, whether they attend a half or full-day, one week or the entire six-weeks.
The camp runs through July 31 and each week has a new and different theme for campers to experience.
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The Lakewood Ranch-based school wants to help parents, like Carrie Risi, mother of two autistic children, faced with the daunting task of finding a special camp and being able to afford it.
"Every year, I dread the summers. I see my friends looking into summer camps that are such fun. Manatee County has a host of activities for kids. But for our son and daughter, these are just not realistic options,' Risi said.
There are many families in the Bradenton-Sarasota area in need of support, guidance and assistance to help their autistic children have a safe and fulfilling summer, according to Ann Sweeney of Beyond the Spectrum.
But the cost is a challenge, Sweeney says, especially for parents who send their children full-time to Beyond the Spectrum during the school year.
"We've got 10-15 kids on a scholarship list right now. After a year of paying full tuition and additional services, parents are spent by the end of it. Unfortunately, when the kids stay home for the summer, they lose valuable skills they learned in school. It's just hard all around," Sweeney said.
Children with autistic behaviors also need close adult supervision, and the best way to achieve this, Sweeney said, is having a team of experienced teachers assigned to the lowest student ratio possible.
Stacey Berkow, a classroom teacher at Beyond the Spectrum, who has served as a camp counselor for two years, enjoys seeing new campers who aren't regular students, bond with each other.
"My heart is in this 110 percent. I enjoy what I do. I like seeing the campers go home happy, walking out the door, seeing their smiling faces, and hearing them say they had a great day. It makes me very happy," Berkow said.
Donations to help send an autistic child to camp can be made by calling Donna Donnelly at Beyond the Spectrum at 941-907-3443, or donating directly online at beyondthespectrum.org.
Kathryn Moschella, East Manatee reporter can be reached at 941-745-7010. Follow her on Twitter@MoschellaHerald.