New Autism Camp More Than Summer Play
Watch Me Grow, with locations downtown and on the Upper West Side, employs occupational therapists to work with autistic campers
By Helaina Hovitz
This summer, Watch Me Grow, a 4,000-square-foot space located at 361 E. 19th St, is offering a special six-week program for kids ages 3 to 5 years old. The studio, which has another location at 162 West 72nd Street, is a play space and therapy center for children with autism and other special needs. The camp is led by speech, physical and occupational therapists who lead children through play that encourages them to focus on tasks and communicate with their peers.
"There are other programs in the neighborhood that are similarly priced, but they don't have an occupational therapist running the program. They're more like teacher's assistants," said Shirael Pollack, owner and director of Watch Me Grow. "Typically, private occupational therapy is about $150 an hour, so if you do the breakdown, it's really a good deal."
The staff to child ratio is small, 2 to 1, and parents are happy that they can get all of their child's services in one place.
For one, the staff helps children who have a hard time ignoring background noise, focusing for more than a few minutes, and making friends. Often, it's hard for them to have a conversation lasting several minutes.
Annette Carabello, who's four-year-old son Noah is on the autistic spectrum and receives speech therapy, physical therapy, and occupational therapy at the center, said that the therapists help him stay on task.
"Before we came in he couldn't stay at the table for more than three minutes, but now he can sit with the therapist at the table for an entire 45 minute session," she said.
The opportunity to socialize in a mediated space is also important for Noah.
"He likes introducing himself when a new child walks in. He wants to know all about them," said Carabello. "Everyone is in the gym working on their individual therapies at the same time, but the children get to interact with each other as it's all happening."
Shy and restless children often need help making friends, and they also receive physical and verbal support if they have a hard time sitting still or concentrating.
Little ones can hop on a trapeze to build upper body strength and release excess energy that could keep them from focusing on other tasks later on, and climb stairs to help strengthen weaker hamstrings and improve flexibility. A rock climbing wall, seesaw, and swing all add to the fun, as do trips to local parks.
Having all of the gym equipment in one place is also economical, according to downtown resident Wendy Leopold, who says that anytime you hear the word "therapeutic" tacked on to equipment like an exercise ball, you know it's going to be very expensive.
"The gym is the best - there are bouncy balls and barrels to walk through and lots of mats to play on. It seems like basic stuff, but they know how to utilize them to make my children stronger," said Leopold, who has a son and a daughter in the program. "It's clean, and they make you and your children feel comfortable. They're very knowledgeable."
As part of the application process, parents consult with individual therapists to make sure the program is tailored to their child's specific needs - and the family's schedule.
"They're very accommodating," said Erin Leyton, mother of Miles, 4, who has a speech impediment. "They had a therapeutic plan for him every single day that incorporated his interests. The staff always tries to help him bridge obstacles."
One of the program's goals is to help kids sit still in circle time without requiring redirection, which is a great way to prepare them for school and improve their in-school experience.
"A teacher might have told parents that the child's not talking much or that he's acting out," Pollack said. "But he's not acting out, he's just having a hard time."
Many parents rave about the quality of the therapists Shirael employs.
"They always motivate him, and are patient and kind," said Leyton. "They have skills other therapists don't. He always looks forward to going, even if he was tired, he said he had a fun day. They encourage him."
Pollack is a mother herself, to two little girls, ages one and four.
The summer camp runs from July 18 to Aug. 13, from 9 a.m-2 p.m, for $3,150.
Manhattan Summer Camps for Special Needs Children
Big Apple Day Program at
Holy Name School, 202 West 97th Street at Amsterdam Avenue,
ages 6-12, accommodates kids with social and emotional issues, including ADHD and Asperger's syndrome and other forms of high-functioning autism. Includes sports, swimming, and social skills assistance from trained professionals. Counselors teach kids how to deal with real-life situations like traveling on public transportation, and campers receive two hours a day of individualized academic instruction provided by special education teachers. Camper-to-staff ratio: 3:1.
Camp Kulam at the JCC in Manhattan334 Amsterdam Avenue at 76th Street,
caters to young kids who are on the autistic spectrum or have communication disorders or other special needs. Campers swim and do yoga, instructors are from the special education or social work fields, and teenage assistants keep the camper-to-staff ratio low.
Camp Tova at the 92nd Street Y, 1395 Lexington Avenue at 92nd Street,
children with developmental and learning disabilities. Campers travel to the Henry Kaufmann Campgrounds in Rockland County on air-conditioned buses to take part in activities such as swimming and sports. On Fridays, they go on field trips. The camper-to-counselor ratio is 4:1.
The Quad Summer Program, 54 Reade Street at Broadway,
ages 7-12. The Quad caters to "twice exceptional" children, who are gifted and talented in some areas but have cognitive or social learning differences. This day camp hides academic learning in its tech, science and arts project-based curriculum. Once a week, kids go on a field trip to places like Governors Island.
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