Camp with a Purpose

Camp Alsing provides a supportive, fun-filled experience for children with high-functioning autism and other social challenges

At first glance Camp Alsing looks like an average summer camp. Campers and counselors are in high spirits as they reenact a battle scene from Star Wars during one of the camp’s theme days. Laughter fills the warm air, and the campers are carefree. But beneath the playful atmosphere is a mission: to provide children who have high-functioning autism, Asperger’s syndrome, and other social communication challenges an opportunity to experience summer camp.

Camp Alsing, located on Unity College’s campus, was founded in 2016 by Emily Chaleff, Andy Lilienthal, and Matthew Siegel. For each of them, camp is much more than a summertime experience. Chaleff spent 12 years as a camper, counselor, and trip leader, and says summer camp is where she found herself; it’s where she gained leadership skills, self-confidence, and her closest friend. Lilienthal is the third-generation owner and director of Camp Winnebago, a 100-year-old boys’ summer camp in Fayette. Siegel, who spent 12 years as a camper and counselor, is a pediatric psychiatrist with expertise in autism and social communication. Collectively, they recognized a need for a summer camp that could welcome these children without making them feel isolated or alienated. “Our campers are often in therapy and are in school, but it is difficult for them to translate what they are learning in therapy into natural, social interactions with peers. The kids who come to Camp Alsing are so thrilled to find their tribe, and they love experiencing a traditional summer camp program,” says Chaleff. For campers with certain disabilities, the experience of a standard summer camp can be overwhelming; the noise and activity that make camp fun for most kids can trigger sensory issues. But, from a clinical standpoint, camp is the perfect place for kids with developmental disorders: it helps them have natural social interactions that they aren’t getting elsewhere. That’s where Camp Alsing comes in.

Each staff member at the residential summer camp is specially trained to handle anxieties and sensory issues and create a loving and supportive environment. Ben Terhune, a repeat camper from Portland, has found his two best friends at camp. His mother, Hilary, says she’s seen Ben become more comfortable in social settings since starting camp. He’s learning how to be independent and confident in his communication abilities. Hilary can trust that Ben will be immersed in the best possible environment—one that facilitates his independence and growth, and that keeps fun at the forefront. Ultimately, Camp Alsing helps its campers to feel accepted and understood. It’s carefully designed to relieve their anxieties, increase self-confidence and problem solving, and give them the freedom to try new things. For the campers, it’s just another day at summer camp.