Camp excitement
An excited camper watches one of her peers participate in an activity.

Camp Rising Sun has been brightening the summer for hundreds of autistic children in New Mexico for a decade. This year it is also setting the path to change the camping experience for their peers in Russia.

“It seems like an ordinary camp from outside but at the same time there are so many things that are therapeutic,” explained Slava Dovbnya, MD, a pediatric neurologist from St. Petersburg who, along with 11 other Russians, visited the camp earlier this month in hopes of providing the same experience for Russian children with autism. “Fun is great, but for kids with autism it is sometimes difficult to have fun without a good supportive structure.”

Children with autism get that support at Camp Rising Sun, part of the Center for Development and Disabilities (CDD) Autism Programs at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center. The camp, celebrating its 10-year anniversary, has drawn hundreds of children over the years, ages 8 to 17, to a safe, fun and supportive environment.

More than 65 teen campers will descend on the Manzano Mountain Retreat in Torreon, N.M. beginning Monday and running through June 26. Earlier this month, the camp hosted younger children.

“We help teach them independence, communication and we work on their social skills,” camp director Paul Brouse said.

Dovbnya’s first camping experience is part of a mission to bring change to Russian camps for children with autism.

“We are trying to help the Russian government redesign the system,” said Dovbnya, who served as an adjunct professor in the UNM Department of Neurology during his visit to New Mexico. He recently returned to his home country. “They don’t have a good structure. They don’t have a good understanding of what these camps could look like for these kids.”

“People are organized, they support each other and welcome ideas,” said clinical psychologist Tanya Morozova, PhD, who is also based in St. Petersburg and served as an adjunct professor for UNM before returning home. “I am amazed how well kids are functioning.”

With support from the Russian charity Naked Heart Foundation, the team of 10 volunteers from five Russian camps got a first-hand look at more than 130 children who participated in various activities including ropes courses, swimming, music and art.

“They are getting much more experience than they can get from any lecture or seminar,” said Morozova. “I can see how different they are after a few days. They are new people.”

“We don’t want to create the bicycle,” she added. “We just want to use the approaches that are already working here.”

In addition to providing these training opportunities to visitors like the Russians, the camp also gives UNM students a real world experience. “I feel we are training the next generation of providers who are going to be out there working with these children,” said Pat Osbourn, the associate director at the CDD. “Our vision is to normalize the experience of disability.”

Even though the camp has grown from just a handful of campers a decade ago to more than a hundred, the CDD's educators want more children with autism to experience it.

"The sad part is there are more kids who want to come then we have spots for and that's only the kids we know about," Brouse said. "To find a way to help those other kids would be incredible."

To continue to bring Camp Rising Sun to more New Mexico's youth with autism the community can make a donation through the Center for Development and Disability or the UNM Foundation.