A summer camp associated with UNM is offering University students the opportunity to work with kids and teens with who have been diagnosed with autism.

Camp Rising Sun runs for two weeks — one during the first week of June, and the second during the last full week of June, said program manager and camp director Paul Brouse. The first week will be dedicated to young people between the ages of 8 and 12, while the second week is for teenagers, he said.

Camp Rising Sun began in 2006 with 18 campers in attendance, Brouse said. This year, the camp is expecting 121 attendees.

In 2009 the camp became part of the Autism Programs at the UNM Center for Development and Disability, according to the center’s website. The camp aims to provide kids with autism a traditional camp experience, Brouse said.

“They will do all the same activities that any other kid would down at the (YMCA) camp, or any other camp,” he said.

Camp Rising Sun also aspires to educate college students about autism and provide respite for parents, Brouse said.

“Oftentimes, parents of kids with autism don’t really have a good support system because of the challenges that some of their kids face,” he said. “When they bring them to camp and they can drop them off in a safe environment … often that’s the first opportunity they’ve had to be without their child for more than a night.”

The camp offers two opportunities for college students to participate, Brouse said. One is through the Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities program, which is the more intensive aspect, he said.

The LEND program gives undergraduates and graduates a chance at hands-on training with autistic youths, said Kathleen Mo Taylor, practicum director for LEND and lead of the behavioral team at Camp Rising Sun. The process is effective, she said, because the students get to spend time with campers and there are professionals on hand who can help the LEND students.

“I’ve had graduate-level students tell me that this particular experience has taught more than any grad class they’ve ever taken because the learning curve is incredibly steep, yet they’re really working with someone with autism,” said Taylor, who is also an adjunct professor of occupational therapy at UNM. Students in the LEND program will go through training prior to the camp to prepare them for working with the campers, Taylor said.

Brouse said another opportunity for college students is to work as a counselor.

“As a counselor, you get a similar training, although not as intense,” he said. “We train you about autism and how to interact with kids with autism and how to motivate them … they’re really just kids with support needs that are a little different. And then we go and play and have fun for a week.”

Students don’t need to be experts in order to be counselors, said Rachel Gillespie, counselor coordinator for Camp Rising Sun.

“We’re more-or-less just looking for people who are open to adaptation and inclusion and who have an open heart,” she said.

One challenging aspect of the camp is that about one in 68 kids is diagnosed with autism, most of whom are boys, Brouse said. But about 80 percent of camp workers are female, he said.

“The thing that our kids need is male role models,” he said. “I think that’s an important distinction.”

Gillespie said this is her seventh year at the camp. She said keeps coming back because she appreciates going to a space that encourages kids with autism to be who they are.

“I like the philosophy that our body structures and functions or the way we happen to process the world shouldn’t be a limit for us being able to participate in activities we enjoy,” she said.