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Camp teaches kids on autistic spectrum new ‘tricks’

By Bethany Knipp

Children on the autism spectrum have been brought together to discover magic at a summer camp where they can also find a sense of community.

About 75 children, some with autism or attention deficit disorders and some without, are attending Flint Hills Summer Magic Camp, sponsored by USD 383 and created five years ago by parents and teachers.

The district’s autism coordinator, Hellen Miller, said the camp is a safe place for children to learn and develop.

‘It provides a safe place for kids to come and gets them out of the house,’ Miller said. ‘Many of the kids on the autism spectrum, what they’d prefer to do is stay home and play video games and watch movies or just isolate themselves because they have difficulty figuring out — not that they don’t want friends — but figuring out how to have friendships and how to make that play with others successful.’

Successful play is abundant at the camp. The children, who are going into kindergarten through sixth grade are taking swimming lessons, dancing, making art and riding horses.

They’re also learning to perform magic tricks, which helps them interact with people and understand their perception.

At the camp held at Northview Elementary School, Aliea Keithly, 5, tied a knot without letting go of the ends of the rope — or so it seemed.

Brian Strole, 30, a magician himself who graduated from Kansas State University in May with a master’s degree in playwriting, has been teaching her ‘The Challenge Knot.’

‘The challenge is, ‘Can you tie a knot in a rope without letting go?’ The answer is no. You can’t, it’s impossible. But they know the secret,’ Stole said. ‘We’ve taught them the challenge.’

Of course, all behind the scenes information is classified.

Strole said by doing magic tricks, the children are learning fine motor skills and presentational skills.

‘[Magic] has an innate appeal to them as opposed to saying, ‘Sit down and write this thing,’ or ‘Sit down and do this work.’ They may not want to do that, but if you amaze them with something, they immediately want to know, ‘How do I do that?’’ Strole said.

Catherine Robson, a district special education teacher and camp teacher said she’s seen changes in students in the last few weeks since the camp started at the beginning of June.

‘I would say patience and perseverance, that’s been the biggest thing,’ Robson said. ‘Like they said in the beginning, ‘That’s hard. I can’t do it,’ but they have stuck with it.’

Miller agreed.

‘Every year we get comments from family and from professionals saying they do see a great increase in skills,’ she said.

The camp uses the Hocus Focus program, which pioneered the idea of using magic tricks as therapy. Miller said K-State has partnered with the camp to do some research about the program to find the best therapies for children on the autism spectrum.

In another Northview classroom, Madison Campbell, 7, was making some art, drawing rainbows. She was not able to pick just one favorite camp activity.

‘All of them!’ she said. ‘I love school.’

The camp could be possibly be fostering her future career ambitions with its horseback riding activities, dancing and singing.

‘I want to be a singer, but I want to be a dancer and I want to be a vet and I want to be an animal rescuer,’ she said.


For older children who are on the autism spectrum, there’s a camp for junior high students interested in making movies called Flint Hills Filmmakers Academy, possibly creating future Hollywood producers.

‘Explosions at the end,’ one student suggested for the ending of a film. ‘What if instead of explosions at the end we had the world’s first fireworks?’ another student asked.

After a small debate about the scene, instructor Nick Timmons intervened.

‘The link that (was) brought to this is that it’s not just explosions without a purpose, it’s explosions that show something about this world,’ said Timmons, a drama therapy graduate student at K-State.

‘If it’s the world’s first fireworks, then that says something really significant about this place that never had fireworks before.’

Timmons said there are lots of benefits to filmmakers camp.

‘It is the best intrinsic motivation you could give middle school kids who are kind of into this sort of stuff,’ he said.

The students are making their own 5- to 7-minute film, which they will show to parents at the end of the camp. They’ll use a green screen to shoot it and those who are interested can edit.

‘They’re going to invest in a whole bunch of different activities that they would never invest in otherwise because they want to see this film get made,’ Timmons said.

But the best benefit is probably social, he said.

‘A lot of these kids, there’s so many activities that they’re excluded from,’ Timmons said. ‘This is an activity that they can come in together and feel like they have a sense of community and feel like they have friends.

It’s also something they can do that not a whole lot of other people have done before and so they can show this to their friends and their friends will be really impressed and they’ll be really impressed because it actually is really impressive stuff.’

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