Animal encounters breed behavioral breakthroughs

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July 31st, 2015

Kids at camp Munroe are introduced to a nine foot long boa constrictor,. Research shows encounters like this have a positive impact on children with disabilities.

Kids at camp Munroe are introduced to a nine foot long boa constrictor,. Research shows encounters like this have a positive impact on children with disabilities.


 

Omaha, NE – Walking into Camp Munroe, I see 30 kids playing and talking with camp counselors. They are getting ready for a big surprise.

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Camp Munroe is a day camp located at the University of Nebraska Medical Center campus. It’s designed to provide a typical camp experience for youth with developmental disabilities. Campers take part in six-one week day camps where they attend presentations, craft-times and take field trips. Kelley Coutts is the assistant director for the Recreational Therapy Department at the Munroe Meyer Institute. She said this week the theme is ‘Walking on the wild side’. To go along with the theme, camp Munroe brought in Wildlife Encounters, a non-profit group from Gretna, to show kids different animals they wouldn’t see everyday. Coutts said since the event is held at UNMC, kids will feel right at home.

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A worker from Wildlife Encounters shows Cyrano the parrot to the campers.

“They already feel settled in, this is their place,” Coutts said. “Everyone who comes here is a guest, so instead of the kids feeling like they are the guest and having to have the environment accommodate them, we’ve already done that.”

Coutts said at Camp Munroe the most important message is the one kids share with their families.

“We feel everyone needs to have their own stories every night to share with their families. So tonight all these guys are going to go home and share with their families the amazing animals they saw here today. If they cannot communicate using their voice, we write out a little journal about their day, every day. So their families really get to know what they got to do and what animals they got to see.”

For Kim Faulk, this is her son’s first year at Camp Munroe.

‘At the zoo, you all get kind of a distant look and sometimes for individuals with disabilities that’s even more challenging,” Falk said. “Maybe they have visual challenges or positioning challenges. Being able to be right up to the animals, they will be able to get full view actually. So it’s really exciting.”

Campers learned about about several animals before getting to see them first hand.

Campers learned about about several animals before getting to see them first hand.

John Keenan’s son Tom is a third year camper. Tom is on the Autism Spectrum. He has social deficits which make it more difficult for him to make friends and play with other children.

“Although Tom is on the Autistic Spectrum, he is a very intelligent and curious person,” Keenan said. “I like the fact that this activity will give him a chance to learn more about an area he maybe hasn’t had a chance to really.”

While research is limited, studies show these types of interactions could be a positive way to help children with disabilities overcome social anxiety and help them understand things like empathy and sharing. According to a study by the National Institutes of Health it also matters when kids with disabilities interact with animals.

Keenan said they got their dog when Tom was a young toddler.

“The dog was the first living being that Tom actually hugged, without being made to hug them. We felt we saw Tom being able to express himself a little more freely, first to the dog then to the family.”

Outside of the time spent learning about animals, Kennan said Camp Munroe has helped Tom in many ways.

“Even almost take a leadership role at times,” Keenan said. “I’ve been told he’s a very outgoing person at camp, he doesn’t really get a chance to do that a lot.He’ll come back and talk about his friend Josh, who is a high school student, who spent the day with him. They really go all out to make camp a fun experience for him. It’s exciting for me as a parent to see him be a part of something and really enjoying himself.”

As the animals handlers show off a baby joey hard to tell who is thrilled more, the kids or their parents. And even though these kids may be laying the groundwork for future behavioral breakthroughs, they’re not thinking about that…they’re too busy having fun at camp.

“He has loved it, he tells me every day how he’s had so much fun. The things they do, the cooking, the field trips everything has been so exciting. He got his white belt in karate yesterday.”

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