Austin Culture of Giving 2012
connecting kids

The Autism Project at UT: Providing spectrum individuals the childhood of their dreams

The Autism Project at UT: Providing spectrum individuals the childhood of their dreams

Austin Photo Set: news_jennifer miller_TAP UT_dec 2012_pony lead
Courtesy of TAP UT
Austin Photo Set: news_jennifer miller_TAP UT_dec 2012_games
Courtesy of TAP UT
Austin Photo Set: news_jennifer miller_TAP UT_dec 2012_pony
Courtesy of TAP UT
Austin Photo Set: news_jennifer miller_TAP UT_dec 2012_umbrella
Courtesy of TAP UT
Austin Photo Set: news_jennifer miller_TAP UT_dec 2012_zipline
Courtesy of TAP UT
Austin Photo Set: news_jennifer miller_TAP UT_dec 2012_pony lead
Austin Photo Set: news_jennifer miller_TAP UT_dec 2012_games
Austin Photo Set: news_jennifer miller_TAP UT_dec 2012_pony
Austin Photo Set: news_jennifer miller_TAP UT_dec 2012_umbrella
Austin Photo Set: news_jennifer miller_TAP UT_dec 2012_zipline

The numbers are staggering: One in 88 children will be diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. While each child with autism is unique, his or her desire to participate in activities with others is often the same as peers without the disorder.

Typical rites of passage in childhood include play dates, sleepover birthday parties, dances, and supplemental classes like music and art; however, parents of children with autism spectrum often find these opportunities are not available for their children. Sometimes, spectrum children are not welcome.

Research shows that participation in recreational activities reduces stress and improves the quality of life for individuals with autism.

What parents find are youthful, formative activities replaced with therapy appointments. Parents wait in the rooms of speech therapy, behavior therapy, and occupational therapy while the child works with an adult professional rather than spending time with a similarly aged peer. This is a national problem; there are so little resources.

UT lecturer and kinesiology professional Pam Buchannan, M.S., had an epiphany after years on the consulting circuit, training parents how to help improve autism symptoms in their children. 

“It came from overhearing parents say, 'All this research is great, but what do we do when I pull into my driveway when I get home tonight? What do I do with my child?'

 TAP offers spectrum individuals activities parents could only dream about: sleepover parties, adaptive art classes, music classes, sleepover camps, all with one-to-one aides to assist the participants.

"I realized right then that, with kinesiology and a curriculum utilizing play and recreation, we could build more than motor skills: family unity social skill, independent living skills and more possibilities. We found there was a huge need in the Austin area and the Autism Project at the University of Texas (TAP) was formed in collaboration with Jody Jensen, Ph.D., UT Professor of Kinesiology & Health," says Buchannan.

TAP offers spectrum individuals activities parents could only dream about: sleepover parties, adaptive art classes, music classes, sleepover camps, all with one-to-one aides to assist the participants.

Imagine the best sleepover party ever for the elementary school set: mini horses, bouncy castles, a gym full of interactive toys and your own buddy for the entire evening — a UT college student. Children with autism experience their first sleepover event with movement, social skills and, for many, their first experience sleeping away from home ever.  

"We create programs based on parents needs. We had a mom of a 19-year-old that wanted to do a peer group with ages 19-25, so we created a program. We also had a mom say, ‘I wish I could get my child to handle a haircut (due to severe sensory issues).’ We setup a hair studio in Anna Hiss gym and provided children haircuts paired with sensory play and fun so they could handle the haircut. 

"We have offered a free screening clinic with occupational therapist, neurologist, developmental psychologist and more.  This was free to the families who couldn’t afford the high costs of testing. We created a spring break camp for boys transitioning to high school with lots of field trips around the UT campus area, and we offer teen sleepover camps with our partnership with Candlelight Ranch,” Buchannan explains.

In their music program, TAP reaches out to local musicians Patrice Pike, Wendy Colona and Sahara Smith who perform guest concerts for participants in the Anna Hiss Gym on the UT campus. Children learn valuable social skills around consuming music and have the ability to move around.

 "[My son] often tells me he has no privacy and would love to hang out with his peers. The TAP campouts give him those opportunities. It gave him a sense of independence and I truly celebrate that." - Sara McGonagle

TAP partners with the students from the UT School of Music, which donated approximately 45 instruments for events. The resident artists work with the children and assist them in composing their own musical works of art. At the end of each workshop, the children perform for the artists.

TAP operates only on fees that are charged for events, which are always at capacity. The organization's goal is to expand the program and offer more low-cost or even free life changing experiences for the autism community. 

What does TAP mean to families? Ask Sara McGonagle, mother to 15-year-old Aidan who is nonverbal, on the autism spectrum, and communicates by spelling his thoughts on a letter board.

“I try to give my son the same experiences as neurotypical kids as much as possible. Being away for a weekend is one of those things. He often tells me he has no privacy and would love to hang out with his peers. The TAP campouts give him those opportunities. It gave him a sense of independence and I truly celebrate that. It's real play and fun and not artificial and contrived like a therapy session is. This is real experience for him.”

Aidan enthusiastically spells, "I like being with other kids with autism. It makes me feel so happy to be with people like me. I fit in for once in my life. Please know how much I want to fit in with others.”

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