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Q&A with CEO Rachel Rowe, Autism Camp Australia

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Q&A with CEO Rachel Rowe, Autism Camp Australia

This month we chat to Rachel Rowe, CEO of Autism Camp Australia, proud autistic woman, and the parent of two beautiful girls, one autistic, and one allistic. Rachel couldn’t find an inclusive camp program which would meet her families’ needs, so she started Autism Camp Australia!

Tell our readers about Autism Camp Australia

Autism Camp Australia (ACA) was launched in November 2019 to fill a critical gap in services and support a broad and growing Australia-wide need for accessible and supported life skills development programs for autistic young people and their families. We do this through an experiential learning camp program over 5 days/nights, 10-12 times a year at each of our locations.

The camps are for the whole family, with programs for the autistic young person, siblings and parents/carers. Our Autistic Young Persons’ Program participants achieve improved functional capacity in communication, social interaction, sensory and emotional regulation, independence and autonomy, self-care and daily living, self-management, fine and gross motor skills and social and community participation. It’s also a place where siblings feel supported, taking part in the amazing Sibworks program, and parents/carers get a break, educational support, some self-care, and meet other parents of autistic young people.

Our camps were informed by a research process with the autistic community. Nearly 800 surveys were completed across parents/carers and autistic young people, and we built the program based on that feedback. We think outside the box, we’re a little bit cheeky, we have a lot of fun ….our camps are like a fruit smoothie with some veggies snuck in, everyone’s so busy having fun they don’t realise they are intensively building capacity. 🙂

How did Autism Camp Australia evolve?

As a proud autistic woman, and the parent of two beautiful girls, one autistic, and one allistic, I recognised a desire for my own family to take part in inclusive respite-based programs that we could enjoy as a family.  Somewhere our autistic daughter would get to hang out with other autistic young people, enjoy a tailor-made intensive program of capacity building social learning and life skills activities and be supported by carers who really understood the lived experience of autism. A place where she could just be herself.

We also recognised that our allistic (non-autistic) daughter needed to feel special too. We wanted her to enjoy her own program of activities and be supported in her role as a sibling to a child with special needs. And lastly, we recognised that as parents, we needed to be able to have a break sometimes. Somewhere we could enjoy some much needed self-care and meet other families like ours. With this in mind, I decided to set up Autism Camp Australia.

In Year One we saw incredible support and demand for our services. We registered with the Australian Securities & Investment Commission as a company limited by guarantee, as a charitable organisation with DGR status, and as a Public Benevolent Institution with the Australian Charities and Not-For Profits Commission; we worked intensively on the infrastructure, protocols, procedures, policies and systems required to roll out our programs; we enrolled over 120 families in our camps; we grew to a team of over 60 providers and carers across two States; we developed a secondary online support model called Autism Camp TV, and new digital programming; and attracted a mixture of government, philanthropic, public and grant funding. Perhaps the most significant evidence of our potential for growth, was that even during a tumultuous year beset with external risks beyond our control, including devastating bushfires requiring an evacuation of our new HQ and a global pandemic, we continued to thrive and grow. Camps across two locations are selling out 4-6 months out.

How important is it that autistics are involved in the running of the camps?

Very important. ACA’s core values serve as the foundation for our organisational culture. Our vision of self-reliance, independence, social connection and community inclusion underpins our decisions and the manner in which we conduct the camps. Our relationship with our neurokin is an all-important part of this. We respect all peoples and value the differences amongst us without judgement or fear. Autistic adults are an important part of the governance, development and delivery on all of our programs, equality and diversity are at the heart of all that we do and we are committed to the empowerment of autistic people. We celebrate neurodiversity at all levels of the organisation, and this is a strong strategic focus in governance, recruitment and organisational culture. ACA’s Board of Directors is represented by 85% autistics and/or family members of autistics. ACA’s Executive Team is represented by 100% autistics. Our camp teams are represented by 50% autistics and/or autistic family members of autistics. We are currently seeking funding for autistic filmmakers to be trained in reportage/videography at our camps. I hope many of the autistic young people who attend our camps will come back and work with us one day.

What can families expect when they stay at Autism Camp Australia?

The camp – over five days and four nights – runs three programmes, one for autistic young people aged seven to 14 years, one for siblings aged seven to 14 years and one for parent/carers. Activities are a mixture of resilience building and fun for all three groups. They include proprioceptive sensory activities to reduce anxiety, social skills support, art therapy, equine-assisted learning, kayaking, paddle-boarding, snorkelling, beach games, rock climbing, team challenges, campfire and damper making, orienteering, bike riding , ropes course and everybody’s favourite, sponge wars! Workshops for parent/carers include advocating for your child, a facilitated dad’s group, a funding categories info session with NDIS LAC’s, and self-care yoga, meditation and workout sessions. But it’s what happens between the activities that is as important as the scheduled activities. That social and community participation, making of friends, sharing of information, and ability to be unmasked, and just be themselves is absolute gold for all family members.

What are the benefits for families staying at Autism Camp Australia?

Our camp program takes an authentic strengths-based approach to the health and wellbeing of autistic young people and their families. Inclusion and acceptance is so important but can be really challenging. We want our young people to develop confidence and independence, increase their social connection, develop new and lasting friendships and celebrate their Autistic identity. We want our parents/carers and siblings to build increased resilience, enhance their social networks and have a greater ability to maintain informal supports for their young people.

ACA’s experiential learning camp program helps form the initial engagement for many isolated autistic young people based on the power of existing interests and works as a stepping-stone to mainstream inclusive social and community participation. Young people learn to embrace and celebrate their differences rather than requiring them to hide them away. We support the autistic young person to develop new one-to-one friendships with their autistic peers, to develop confidence and resilience, increase their social connection, develop new and lasting friendships and celebrate their Autistic identity; we use a one-to-one carer/autistic young person care-based model, building confidence and self-belief in the participant within a ‘safe’ ACA camp environment lead by a mix of autistic and allistic young adults; we build on existing strengths and special interests in a supportive environment, enabling autistic young people to more effectively prepare for mainstream inclusive activities; and we introduce an experiential ‘taster plate’ of new activities to the young person during the camp to enable them to ‘taste test’ new activities and expand on interests which they may wish to pursue but haven’t had the social confidence to do so until now.

Where are the camps and are there any plans to expand? hint hint

Our first location opened in Byron Bay in January 2020 … a second location opened on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland in December 2020 and a third location will open in Victoria in September 2021! We have plans to open in six locations around Australia over the next 3 years, with over 700 autistic families enjoying our camps every year by 2023, and from there who knows…. we have had a lot of interest in our camp model so would love to take the model overseas, and many many requests for teen and young adult camps too. We are starting to discuss corporate opportunities leading to autism at work placements with global partners (and us!), and would love it if becoming part of the ACA family resulted in secure, happy young people with secure  fantastic jobs with neurodiverse aware employers. Dreaming big, but wouldn’t it be amazing if we could impact on the stats around wellbeing, employment and life expectancy for autistics. Ultimately, I want a future for my child based on equality and inclusion. Watch this space!

How can families enrol and can they use NDIS funding?

Head over to our website www.autismcampaustralia.org and have a good look through the pricing and eligibility criteria and background information. Most families use NDIS funding to support attendance at the camps, with a small out of pocket cost to cover any non-NDIS costs associated with the camps. We can provide a quote for your planning meeting, and there is a downloadable case study and outcomes info sheet for your LAC. A good place to start is to have a look at some of the family testimonials and photos from our recent camps. https://www.autismcampaustralia.org/byron-bay-family-testimonials-2 The proof is in the pudding after all!