UW Autism Center partners with YMCA’s Camp Orkila

During the Oct. 27–29 weekend, 17 families with special needs children joined the first Family Camp for Exceptional Families at YMCA Camp Orkila on Orcas Island.

Families participated in activities such as arts and crafts, boating, archery, wall climbing and adaptive sports. The camp was aimed at bringing families together who have kids with special needs while enjoying the outdoors. Over 50 people joined — kids ranging from 3 to 14 years old.

The event was hosted by YMCA Camp Orkila in conjunction with the UW Autism Center and the APEX Program.

Chris Santa, Conference and Retreats Director at YMCA Camp Orkila, was very pleased with how the pilot program went for this event.

“This weekend was part of an effort initiated by Camp Orkila to reach people who typically would not be able to experience camp otherwise,” Santa said.

This camp experience allowed these children to experience activities that are out of their normal routine and enjoy their weekend like all kids should.

“Folks told stories of kids trying new activities for the first time, making new friends, and the relief of being able to just ‘be accepted for who they were’ for a weekend,” Santa said. “With the high staff to camper ratio of this weekend, our staff really got to know the families and truly engage with them. Parents shared stories about their children being very scared on the zipline or giant swing, and then overcoming that fear to succeed in their goal.”

Chelsea Robinson, parent of a camper at Family Camp, raved about the program.

“We have never been able to enjoy these activities with our son before and it was the best 24 hours I’ve ever had with him in his 10 years with us,” Robinson said.

APEX Program Director Benjamin Aaronson, Ph.D., works to give children with autism spectrum disorder, ADHD and similar disorders experiences to have peer connections in a real-world setting. The APEX Program is in conjunction with the UW Autism Center.

“The goal of the event was to provide a space for families to connect with each other, with one another, and to provide an advanced social opportunity for kids who often struggle socially,” Aaronson said. The APEX program has a summer camp each year and follow-up events throughout the year.

“This was a pilot program, but we received overwhelmingly positive feedback from all those involved. We hope to offer this program again next year, and we’re looking into offering more opportunities for families to connect in unconventional venues,” Aaronson said.

A majority of the attendees were a part of the APEX program which, according to Aaronson, “focuses on providing kids with advanced peer experiences to develop real-world social skills.”

The UW Tacoma Autism Center works to engage those in the South Sound and is a satellite of the center on the Seattle campus.

“The UW Autism Center serves the entire community. It is an internationally recognized center, and while clients come from around the world, we are especially focused on improving the lives of families in Washington State affected by autism spectrum disorder,” Aaronson said.

The UW Autism Center offers a variety of services to the public and is in high demand. Currently a majority of their program are either full or have wait-lists.


Sophia Sonovich

Sophia is a UWT senior double majoring in communication and arts, media, and culture with a minor in business administration. She is the director of the Little Gym of Puyallup and is a freelance writer for various local web and print magazines. Sophia enjoys spending time with her family, and friends and reading books.