News Column

EMF Discovery offers camp for those with autism spectrum disorder

August 3, 2014

By Dawn Decwikiel-Kane, News & Record, Greensboro, N.C.

Aug. 03--GREENSBORO -- Elementary-age campers sing catchy tunes with harmony and enthusiasm.

"We just started those songs yesterday, and you already know them so very well," teacher Kristen Blumenfeld praises them.

They hear musical stories.

They make rainsticks and ocean drums.

They try their hand at instruments.

They listen to brass and woodwind quintets, a trombone quartet, a piano trio.

They not only learn more about music but make friends in a setting tailored to their needs.

This camp is geared to children on the autism spectrum.

Each summer, the Eastern Music Festival brings student musicians ages 14-22 from all over the world -- and acclaimed classical musicians to be their teachers -- to Guilford College for five weeks of study and concerts.

During the festival, EMF and the Music Academy of North Carolina join forces to offer music camps for elementary school children.

Three years ago, the two nonprofit organizations added a weeklong EMF Discovery camp for those with autism spectrum disorder.

Every aspect has been planned by Music Academy teachers Colleen Chenail and Blumenfeld; Mary Mig McEntire, a special education teacher with Guilford County Schools; and Courtney Shaw, the EMF's marketing and educational programs director.

Blaire Gandee, 9, has attended the camp since its inception.

"Our kids can't function in a typical music camp," says her mother, Jenny Gandee. "It gives her and others an opportunity to explore music that they would never get."

Amy Gates sees the benefits for her son, Andrew, 9.

"If he acts like himself, a lot of times kids look at him because he's a little high-strung," Amy Gates says. "Here, he gets to be with other children who also have autism, so he can let his true self out. He doesn't have to be so guarded and reserved."

Autism spectrum disorder describes a range of complex disorders of brain development, including Asperger's syndrome on the high-functioning end of the spectrum.

People on the autism spectrum can exhibit difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive patterns of behavior.

Their numbers are growing. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identify about one in 68 American children on the autism spectrum, 10 times the number of 40 years ago, according to Autism Speaks, an autism science and advocacy organization.

Guilford County Schools also has seen an increase. As of April 1, the school system had 1,054 students with autism, says Alicia Tate, the executive director of the exceptional children's program. That's up 85 percent since 2007.

The EMF Discovery camp began as a mother's wish for her child and others like him.

Christy Elkins sought a summer camp for her son. Nate, then going into sixth grade, has Asperger's syndrome.

"There were a lot of camps for children with special needs, but none geared specifically to Asperger's," Christy Elkins says.

A music teacher who served on EMF's education committee, Elkins asked whether EMF could fill the gap. With help from a grant and the Music Academy, the EMF Discovery camp was born.

"For kids with Asperger's, music can give them an outlet to express themselves when they don't have the words for it," Elkins says. "My son is very verbal, but he expresses how he feels through songs. If he's happy, he plays happy songs. If he's not feeling great, he will play more mournful or sad songs."

EMF did not receive a grant to support the camp this year. So it charged $40 per child and absorbed the rest of the estimated $3,000 cost.

Some people with autism spectrum disorder excel in music, as well as visual skills, math and art.

That musical interest shows in the 13 children who gather at the Music Academy on five afternoons in late July. Some have come from as far as Asheboro and Winston-Salem.

Andrew Gates's attraction to the arts extends beyond music, to theater and dance. He takes lessons at the Dance Center of Greensboro and attended the school district's Summer Arts Institute.

"You can do anything you want with music," Andrew says.

Lennon and Garrett Ferguson discovered their love of music through their father, a concert promoter at The Blind Tiger.

"They have started researching artists and telling me about people I don't even know about," Joe Ferguson says of Lennon, 7, and Garrett, 6.

Teachers post the schedule on the wall, minus the times in case an activity runs long.

Greeting song. Circle time. Snack. EMF student performers. Story time. African drumming. Musical concepts: rhythm and dynamics. Musical craft. Circle time.

"Kids with autism often have a tremendous amount of anxiety," McEntire says. "You are trying to feed information to them ahead of time. That helps to alleviate some of that anxiety."

If the noise or activity level becomes too much, the children can take brief refuge in a "sensory break room."

Here, they can crawl inside a tent, read a book or run their fingers through a container of kinetic sand until ready to rejoin the group.

On this second day, children have begun to shed their shells.

Blumenfeld sings them into a circle on the floor. "Let's make a circle, circle, circle." She leads a song that greets each child, while teaching about dynamics or volume.

"Blaire, should we do a piano (soft) dynamic or a forte (loud) dynamic?" she asks.

"Forte," Blaire replies.

After snack time, a woodwind quintet of EMF students arrives to perform.

"Which one is the hardest to learn to play?" asks Elijah Pickard, 9.

"They are all hard for different reasons, but they are all very learnable," replies Antonia Chandler, who plays French horn.

Lennon Ferguson, who likes to read about composers, asks who wrote the music. Teachers write down their names for him.

"Today, I listened to some circus music by this person," Lennon says, pointing to the name of German composer Paul Hindemith.

Teachers are impressed.

"Most rising second-graders don't even know what a composer is, let alone specific composers," Chenail says.

After a quiet story about a violin, Chenail leads them in African drumming.

Later, Chenail pulls out her violin. Each child gets to try his or her hand on a few notes.

"I did it!" Sarah Quintana says.

On the last day of camp, parents and grandparents come to watch children perform what they have learned.

They shoot video on phones and tablets as children sing and tap out rhythms on resonator bars and African drums.

Jenny Gandee holds back tears.

"I was looking at all the kids and how they followed along," she says. "I was amazed that they were able to do that in front of an audience."


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