There are hundreds of amusement and theme parks in the United States. There’s the Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari in Santa Claus, Indiana; Paul Bunyan Land in Brainerd, Minnesota; and, if you’re so inclined, there’s Dollywood, the Dolly Parton-themed amusement park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.
And yet, it is Sesame Place, the “Sesame Street”-themed amusement park in Langhorne, that became the first Certified Autism Center, as designated by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards.
That was in 2018.
When Marissa Becker, senior program manager at the Foundation for Jewish Camp, heard about the designation from a colleague, she was delighted, and got to putting together a plan. The bulk of her job, after all, is figuring out how best to use a $12 million grant awarded to the FJC by the Weinberg Foundation, earmarked specifically to help Jewish summer camps improve their accessibility to campers with disabilities of all kinds.
On Dec. 7-8, 41 Jewish camp professionals from across the country — including representatives from Camp Harlam and Camp Ramah in the Poconos — gathered for an educational experience at Sesame Place organized by FJC. Over the course of two days, the group toured the park with the director of entertainment during a busy day, saw behind the scenes how Sesame Place works to ensure pleasant experiences for children with autism and attended a training session with Meredith Tekin, the president of the IBCCES, and Kerry Magro, a nationally-renowned educator and speaker, himself on the autism spectrum.
For many attendees, along with a few other camp professionals, the education will continue on to an Autism Specialist certification, using a 14-credit hour online course to learn about how to serve the complex behavioral and emotional needs of autistic children.
“We felt like, ‘This is a chance to actually hear best practices from outside the field of Jewish camp, which feels like it could really elevate the conversations we’re having,’” Becker said.
Jewish summer camps pose unique challenges for children on the spectrum and the counselors, administrators and professional staff that work with them. Summer camp is an intensely social time, and autistic campers can struggle with the attendant difficulties of communal living. There’s the sensory overload that can come with something like Color War, and the challenge of training young, seasonal staff, who may be working with children for the first time.
Some camps, according to Becker, have been developing programs for working with autistic campers for decades, while others have only started in earnest the past few years. Their time at Sesame Place, then, was not only a chance to hear from experts, but also an opportunity to hear from other Jewish camp professionals about best practices.
Cori Miller, a trained social worker, has worked for Camp Harlam for nine years, overseeing the enrollment process and managing the Camper Care team. That all adds up to say that Miller is often an early point of contact for prospective families, and remains in close contact with campers throughout their time there.
Miller had been to Sesame Place many moons ago, when her children were still of Sesame Place-age, but seeing it through the eyes of a professional was a new experience. She saw the ways that Sesame Place designers were able to find unused space to create quiet areas for autistic children to take a break from the sensory rush of the park and learned about how seasonal employees, often on the younger side, are trained quickly and effectively.
Conversations about the training stuck out to Miller, given the overlap in the challenges faced by the park and those faced by Jewish summer camps. But she came away with a reinvigorated sense of her charge when it comes to training counselors.
“It’s not about knowing everything there is to know, or becoming an expert in autism, or learning disabilities or mental health challenges,” she said. “But it’s about teaching young staff and providing training for staff so that they understand that the way to connect to a child is to just be a human being.”
Becker was impressed with the idea that camp, unlike school, does not run on a deficit model. Meaning, where kids in school are often made to focus on what they cannot do, and need to be brought to competency in those fields, camp is a place to focus more on the areas where kids have already found success. And even if they don’t, Becker said, the stakes of failure feel so much lower, softening a fall.
Another key for Miller was the importance of broadcasting the work that camps do to create successful experiences for children with disabilities of any kind. That, she believes, is an important factor in getting every camp up to speed when it comes to the broader mission of inclusion.
“It’s not enough to just do it,” she said. “You also have to say what you’re doing.”