By Barbara Francis
A Baptist camp in Virginia is sponsoring its first retreat geared for families affected by autism. Piankatank Camp and Conference Center, located near Hartfield, Va., plans to hold its first Autism Family Camp May 30-June 2.
“Every family needs a break now and then,” said Niki Gourley, retreats director for the camp affiliated with the Baptist General Association of Virginia, “especially families raising a special needs child.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 50 American children has some form of autism spectrum disorder, up from 1 in 86 in 2007. Experts attribute the increase to more doctors diagnosing cases that might have been missed even five years ago. Boys are nearly five times more likely than girls to have autism.
“During the past few years we’ve seen an increasing number of families affected by autism,” Gourley said. She said children with some forms of ASD attend summer camp, but parents of those with more complex forms often feel their children couldn’t participate in a camp. “Our desire is to offer this experience to everyone,” she said.
Autism spectrum disorder and autism are both general terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors.
Gourley said the Family Autism Camp will provide a weekend for respite and fun for the whole family, with couples and single parents having opportunities for relationship-building with other parents.
Children with ASD and their siblings will spend time with their families in a safe, low-anxiety environment, enjoying new experiences and meeting new friends. Age-appropriate Bible study and worship will be part of the camp.
“Many families of children with ASD don’t feel like they can go to church because there is no one to take care of their child,” said Gourley. “So we will offer opportunities for a spiritual retreat, as well.” Individualized support will allow parents a chance to relax and recharge.
Among the added volunteers for the weekend will be members of Tabernacle Baptist Church in Newport News, Va. This congregation has a ministry for children with autism and offers a special service on Sunday evenings, called The HOPE Service, for families living with the daily challenges of autism to worship freely without worry as their child is loved and ministered to in an environment designed for them by trained volunteers.
“Children with autism and special needs need to feel welcome in the body of Christ,” said Gourley. “While the kids may not be able to sit through a worship service, congregations always need to be accepting and loving and welcome these families that are struggling.”