Autism Chemistry Camp a Success

Thanks to an American Chemical Society grant, two UA departments joined forces to organize a camp designed to increase educational and professional opportunities for children with autism.
Jan. 19, 2010
Campers and their mentors work on a laboratory experiment.
Campers and their mentors work on a laboratory experiment.
Camper and mentor participating in a science experiment.
Camper and mentor participating in a science experiment.
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For the parents of children with autism spectrum disorder or Asperger Syndrome, even those who are highly functioning, finding someone who can tell them what their kids can do versus what they can't do is often a challenge.

According to a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, Arizona has one of the highest rates of autism in the country. Autism is a neurobiological disorder that impairs one's ability to communicate with and relate to others.

University of Arizona research professor of radiology Terry Matsunaga, whose son has autism, decided that he would do everything possible to provide educational opportunities for his son.

Watching his son gain a merit badge in chemistry as a Boy Scout got Matsunaga thinking and as head of the Southern Arizona Section of the American Chemical Society he found an opportunity to draw awareness to autism while helping to integrate adolescents with autism into greater society.   

Through an American Chemical Society innovative program grant Matsunaga was able to put together a team to introduce children ages 11 to 15 with highly functioning autism to the world of chemical science on the UA campus.

He, together with other UA representatives, received a $2,200 grant to host the first UA Chemistry Camp in 2009. The camp paired 15 children with autism with 15 undergraduate students from the UA Student Affiliate of the American Chemical Society. It was the first of three successful camps the organizers have held.

The most recent camp was held on Saturday and has become a success beyond the expectations of those involved. UA units involved in organizing the camp included  the American Chemical Society and its UA student chapter, the department of chemistry and biochemistry, the department of speech, language and hearing sciences, the Radiology Department and the Disability Resource Center.

"I didn't know it would work," Matsunaga said. "We needed to make sure these kids were engaged in the experiments, but also needed to ensure that the children were aware of the safety needs in a laboratory. We also had to coordinate with experts to ensure that the UA chemistry students understood the special needs of these children."

UA Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences graduate students attend the camp to undergraduate students in communications improve this communications skills so they can work more effectively with children with autism.

They work under the guidance of Jennifer Casteix, a UA clinical assistant professor at Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences who has worked with children with autism in southern Arizona for almost two decades.

With Arizona's high incidence of the disorder Casteix said the camp is part of an effort to create awareness among UA professors, K-12 teachers and chemistry and biochemistry professionals.

"We have to be able to educate these kids so we want UA instructors to know that these kids can learn; they may need to be instructed a little differently but they can learn," she said. "And chemistry is an area of study that many of these kids gravitate toward – it is a systematic field in which the children can focus on a small aspect – if you follow these rules you can come up with an expected result," she said.

She said adolescents with highly functioning autism or Aspberger Syndrome can do science and math but the social aspect is difficult for them. "Children with autism, even high functioning, kids can find it difficult to process language with surrounding noise or smells. They are hypersensitive to things we can ignore, such as sight, sounds and touch."

In the laboratory, the children are expected to wear goggles, gloves and a lab coat.

The chemistry camp is held for five hours with a lunch break and according to the camp organizers, the children are engaged the whole time.  

In the camp, every student is paired with an undergraduate chemistry or biochemistry undergraduate mentor from the American Chemical Society. The UA chapter prides itself for outreach to Pima County K-12 students and, according to Paul Lee, UA associate staff scientist and chemistry outreach coordinator, the students are always in demand.

"Many of these undergraduate student mentors will go on to become future high school science teachers or future college professors or future engineers. Hardly a weekend goes by when they do not get a request to come out and put on a chemistry show for area schools," Lee said. 

UA science major Emily Simpson, a senior and alumna Danielle Buck, who graduated last year, developed the schedule of activities and chose the experiments the participants would conduct in the camp. Steve Brown, manager of instructional laboratories, also worked to put on the very visual camp with Lee.

"These autistic kids are really bright. We know from Jennifer's instruction that if the autistic kids look directly at you and talk directly to you, they are engaged. The experiments produce very visual results and during the camp, you can see the children looking right at their peer and talking directly to them. They really bond with their peer and they don't get bored," Lee said.

Casteix said the group wanted the kids to have fun and learn but more importantly, "we really wanted these kids and their families to know that if you set higher education as a goal and take the right steps, there is a place for your children here at the UA."

The success of the camp has gained the attention of the Pima County Chapter of the Autism Society, which has agreed to help fund future chemistry camps.

"We are happy to be part of two UA departments banding together looking to help a need in the community. Together, we hope to expand the possible career choices for these highly functioning children," Casteix said. "We have learned that yes, you can teach these children and that we need to help them succeed."