The first noises you hear when you walk by the pool at the Deer Grove Leisure Center in Bensenville are screeching laughter, cries of joy, and splashing water -- summer sounds of boys and girls having fun. From behind the fence, you cannot tell which ones have autism.
Visiting the pool is Northeast DuPage Special Recreation Association's Little Explorers summer day camp for children ages 4 to 8 with autism. The camp runs Monday through Friday until Aug. 1 and provides a respite for the families of these children.
For the campers, it's a chance to improve swimming skills, develop peer friendships, and build self-esteem and confidence. All of these are camp goals, but the most important goal is for the kids to have as much fun as possible.
Isaac, 6, is in his second summer of camp and loves it. When asked what he likes best about camp, Isaac enthusiastically says, "Everything! There are awesome activities. Last week we went to Monkey Joe's and it was great!"
Not just the campers are having fun; the staff also seems to be enjoying themselves. The camp has a one-to-one ratio of campers to staff. The camps are made possible by the help of young volunteers and part-time staff.
Most are college and high school students looking for more than a paycheck. Working with autistic kids gives them a chance to connect with individuals who need and appreciate their help.
Addison Trail High School senior Alex Dilsworth was motivated to volunteer for the first time this year because she has a friend with autism.
"I like kids and try to get into their minds," she said. "I like helping them have fun."
She hopes to study psychology or counseling at DePaul University.
In addition to the Little Explorers Camp, NEDSRA offers four other camps using park and school assets of the agency's member partners. Because the water park in Bensenville has a new splash pool, three camps are based in Deer Grove Leisure Center's classrooms and a nearby school.
Camp Discovery, for children ages 6 to 18 with learning disabilities and behavior disorders, is run at the new Sports Hub in Glendale Heights. Camp Exploration, for autistic youth ages 9 to 14, is based at Army Trail Elementary School in Addison.
In addition to the swimming activities, Little Explorers camp is designed with sensory games and crafts that help kids with autism. Camp leader Erin Mikulecky has been working at NEDSRA's camps for the past six summers. Her full-time job is working as a school counselor at West Aurora High School.
"We play sensory games using water, sand and textures like play dough, rice and noodles to improve the children's tactile development. We also go to the library, where the kids pick out their own books and then we have story time," Mikulecky said.
Also planned for this summer are field trips to Blackberry Farm in Aurora to teach campers about farm life and to the DuPage Children's Museum in Naperville.