Ascendigo provides opportunities for individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) to experience the more advanced, age-appropriate activities that truly challenge them. Unlike their typical peers, children and adults with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have few opportunities to experience the more advanced, age-appropriate activities which truly challenge them. Ascendigo provides this opportunity and the underlying instructional approach to realize it.
Ascendigo believes that learning any activity is best accomplished through sustained and repeated immersion, coupled with the expectation that the participant can in fact progress to the next level. We have chosen activities that can be “extreme” to an ASD child but which can also be mastered by that child through incremental learning. The activity provides an intrinsic motivation to learn and work, and the staff of Ascendigo provides the specialized instruction to enable the camper to succeed.
It can be daunting to a non-verbal child to look over the edge of a cliff that he’s being asked to rappel down- but his climbing harness makes him safe and he is coached on how to make it down. Once he does it, he finds it is exhilarating, fun, and rewarding. It can also seem forbidding to someone with autism to be placed in the middle of a lake on a water tube while the boat pulls away, but he has a life vest on and a counselor beside him, and once he’s moving he sees that he can hold on and enjoy the exhilarating ride as he begins to love every minute of the experience. Then he’s ready for the next step: to move from a tube to water skis, or to move from a low, gentle cliff to a more difficult climb.
The sports chosen by Ascendigo foster motor planning and skills that can lead to higher cognitive function and improved behavior. The activities chosen can be individualized, are free of complicated rules, and are intrinsically fun and motivating to the average person with an ASD no matter what level of mastery they have achieved. The sports are available in most communities or on family vacations, so learning gained at camp can be generalized and strengthened back home.
The goals for our campers are fourfold:
- To foster the long term incorporation of recreational sports into daily life which is so important to human physical and mental health;
- To improve cognitive, linguistic, motor, and social skills through physical action and group interaction;
- To promote personal growth and independence; and
- To have a fun experience.
Recreational Sports as a Lifelong Activity
It is our belief that motivating and fun recreational activities promote an interest in physical fitness and increase life-long leisure time activity options. True physical fitness means optimal strength, dexterity, muscle tone, agility, aerobic conditioning, and weight control, all of which are targets of our sports agenda. Research has shown that a program of regular exercise results in improved long term health, including reductions in cardiovascular disease. Exercise requiring more complex routines may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and general cognitive decline. More complex motor activities which challenge the individual and require attention to task can lead to improved body awareness, sensory processing, and motor control. Proficiency in “typical” recreational activities can also lead to a more integrated life within the wider community during teen and adult years.
Cognitive, Linguistic, Motor, and Social Gains
The premise of Ascendigo and its focus on sustained physical activity is that motor planning proficiency, from a neurological standpoint, provides the underpinnings for a host of complex and extremely important functions. Many of us are aware of the effects of motor planning ability on gross and fine motor skill development such as those used in activities of daily living (sitting, raising oneself from sitting, standing, weight shifting, balancing, walking, feeding, using utensils and appliances, and grooming) and, to a higher level, graphic motor or writing skills. However, few people recognize the impact of poor motor planning skills on an individual’s linguistic and cognitive skills. Research has shown that the same basic “planning” or organization which underlies self help skills also underlies linguistic and cognitive sequencing and access to organized ideas, thoughts and problem solving functions. Highly motivating physical activities, which are based on activating and developing automatic experiences of successful sequences of movements- such as those used when skiing, hiking, swimming and the like – provide unique opportunities for the experience of healthy motor planning.
Quality and intensity of intervention is typically more important than quantity, especially for neurological “imprinting” of patterns and skills. Gains attained through these unique experiences of healthy motor planning patterns have the potential to generalize across many other areas of skill acquisition. We believe that participants gain immediate access to increased focus and the ability to attend to a task, and also experience reduction in anxiety and distractibility (from both external and internal stimuli), after participating in these centering and all encompassing types of skill based physical activities. Through these experiences, they learn how to access external stimuli for use in decision-making. Increased language production, related-language content and improved processing skills have been noted after participating in kayaking, climbing, skiing and other goal-oriented motor tasks. Capitalizing on these opportunities, expansion of communicative and social interaction is encouraged and facilitated by our camp staff. Our staff is trained to elicit frequent social communication exchanges, whether verbal, picture- or computer-based. Camper-to-camper and camper-to-counselor exchanges are both promoted.
Enrollment in the summer and winter programs is available to persons of all genders ages 5 and up. Campers participate in the athletic activities as a group but have the benefit of one-to-one camper/ counselor interaction. Our core physical activities are limited in number and repeated several times over the course of the session. In this way, participants are more likely to reach a level of competency, as confidence levels increase. Our program staff assesses the skills of each participant, and counselors provide one-on-one individualized instruction and support. Each of the activities is scaffolded into multi-challenge levels, and the campers are encouraged by staff to try new activities and improve their skills. A camper can opt for a more comfortable level of participation at any time. In this manner, each child has the opportunity to participate at his/her own pace and competency, and everyone can be taken to his/her next level of physical development.
It is our hope that participants will build upon their Ascendigo experiences and develop an appreciation for nature and physical and productive leisure time activities that will become healthy and social components of their lifestyles, and that these interests will stay with them into adulthood.
A feeling of well-being, restfulness, and accomplishment, such as we all experience after participating in these types of athletics, may have an even more dramatic impact on the person on the autism spectrum. Such feelings can have a positive impact on behavior. Living away from home in an unfamiliar place with an assigned aide provides a supportive environment to achieve greater independence.
Activity naturally induces feelings of self-worth, and particularly in the adult program we hope to emphasize how helping others in turn helps oneself. Through our individualized approaches, we ensure that as much of the participants output results from intrinsic motivation and is genuinely “their own” as possible, thereby maximizing their feelings of self-worth.