In seven years, the boy had never used words to communicate with another person.

He had a non-verbal form of autism. But, he had also never communicated in writing. His parents and educators were worried he might also be illiterate, maybe forever. Therapy and school-based speech services hadn’t helped.

Then, one afternoon at a summer camp, the boy was playing with lettered blocks in the mulch of a playground. He neatly arranged five, and, to everyone’s surprise, they spelled a word.

Not just any word, but a word near to the hearts of countless children his age. A word that awakens a child’s imagination and evokes a sense of wonder. A word that couldn’t be dismissed as accidental. A word that was purposeful.

T-R-A-I-N

With locomotive force, emotions crashed into camp director Storey Snyder. Her mind’s eye envisioned a changed future for the boy. He is reading books. He is holding conversations with help from a speech-generating device. He is emotionally and intellectually connected to the world around him.

“It’s a goosebumps moment, no question,” she said. “That’s why we are here.”

One of a kind camp

“Here” is Camp Achieve, an autism camp for children ages 6 to 12. Ball State’s Center for Autism Spectrum Disorder(CASD) operates the camp, and Burris Laboratory School hosts it on its campus in Muncie. The six-week day camp is unique because of its intensive focus on improving academic, social, and behavioral skills through individualized learning plans.

According to Dr. David McIntosh, CASD director, most other camps for kids with autism focus on recreation. They are fun, but they don’t necessarily improve lives.

“I don’t know of any other camp like this,” he said.

Autism is a wide-ranging disorder, and the issues each child faces vary. Some have social problems that include a hesitancy to look people in the eye or address someone as they walk into the room. Others can’t speak, or become violent, or are behind on their bathroom skills.

“You name it, we’ve seen it,” McIntosh said.

McIntosh, who is the former chair of the Department of Special Education and the new associate dean for faculty affairs and strategic initiatives in Ball State’s Teacher’s College, founded Camp Achieve 12 years ago.

In that time he has seen countless campers transformed. Several have gone on to college. One became a Navy intelligence officer. Many are able to join a regular classroom without special support. Almost every camper leaves with new friends and improved self-esteem.

Known nationwide

Camp Achieve is well-known in the autism community. It has drawn campers from as far away as New Orleans.

Often, out-of-town families rent an apartment in Muncie for the camp’s duration.

The camp hosts 30 kids every year and it is free, funded entirely by an anonymous donor with strong ties to the University.

Programming is based on applied behavior analysis and evidence-based treatment. Most of the counselors are Ball State education students, and they are supervised by a highly qualified staff of education and behavioral professionals. Snyder has a bachelor’s degree from Ball State in early childhood special education and a BSU master’s in intense intervention.

Chris Turvey’s 12-year-old son Marshall has gone there every year for the past 7 years. This past year was his last.

“Typically, he’ll leave school at the end of the academic year and be behind his peers,” Turvey said. “But then he goes to Camp Achieve, and, by the time he goes back to school, he’s made up so much ground toward his educational goals. It’s a laser-like focus at camp.”

A joy-filled place

While Camp Achieve’s mission is serious, it’s counselors and staff make it fun. They decorate the classrooms with a variety of themes, from dinosaurs to the Wild West. Students go on field trips, swim at the Ball Gymnasium pool, go rock climbing and more.

The work is difficult, but rewarding, according to counselor Jamie Gaither, who is pursuing a PhD in school psychologyat Ball State.

“When you make a breakthrough, it means so much,” she said.

For as much training and research that goes into the camp, Snyder said the key to its success comes from the heart.

“It makes my eyes water,” she said. “But our staff loves these kids. This is a joy filled place. At the end of the day, these kids feel loved.”