Many parents of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder find that getting a diagnosis can be tricky. Once parents and doctors agree that a child indeed is on the spectrum, another quest begins to find the best resources available to help the child excel to his or her maximum potential—academically, socially and otherwise.

Sandy Devlin says the best way to help a child with autism often is to develop a very individualized approach. The professor of curriculum, instruction and special education at Mississippi State University also is the founder and director of Camp Jigsaw, which marked its fifth year at MSU this summer.

Camp Jigsaw is a special retreat for boys age 13-22 on the spectrum who enjoy a traditional summer camp experience while also receiving individualized instruction. The camp focuses on areas that often are the most challenging for youth with autism. These include social and behavioral skills, pragmatic language skills, as well as practical life skills that lead to a greater level of independent living.

Steve Murdoch of Birmingham, Alabama, attended camp this summer for his third year. His mother Alice Murdoch, a 1988 MSU College of Business alumna, says Camp Jigsaw helps her son become more independent. He has a great week at camp, but the real impact is when he brings improved skills back home.

The 18-year-old has difficulty communicating. His mother says Steve is particularly unlikely to talk with people he isn’t comfortable around––anyone he doesn’t know well or those he doesn’t see often. Alice Murdoch says Steve was comfortable at school with his primary teachers, but he avoids conversation with people he sees more occasionally, such as people he sees weekly at church.

At Camp Jigsaw, Jackson Moore, an Oxford native and 2014 MSU graduate of the curriculum, instruction and special education program, worked one-on-one with Steve this year. Moore, who also served at Camp Jigsaw in previous years as an undergraduate student, will begin a master’s program in emotional and behavioral disorders at MSU this fall. He says his experiences working with a variety of special needs children and adults have only confirmed his calling to the field.

Moore says he has seen Steve become more independent at Camp Jigsaw within just a few days. Steve can fix his own plate at mealtimes, he explains.

“I have been trying to get Steve to voice what he wants––to tell me,” Moore says. The week has built a strong trust between the two. Moore says some of his goals for Steve include encouraging him to get his own drink if he wants one. At home, Steve may tell his parents “drink,” to express a request. Moore says Steve has the ability to get a drink for himself. An increased level of independence will benefit Steve and those around him, Moore says.

Also, as Steve and others on the spectrum gain more independence, the greater their chances for gaining paid employment in the future. This year, Alice Murdoch says Steve will continue going to his high school for two days a week. He will go to a job training program during the other three weekdays.

Alice Murdoch says of her son’s camp experiences, “When we started talking about camp this year, he started telling me about stuff he did last year at camp that he never told me before. He just gets so excited. It’s one of the highlights of his year.

“This camp, they can get so much out of him. He matures a lot,” she says, adding that the free camp is affordable to those who otherwise may not be able to participate.

“It’s so much better of an experience than you can pay for.”

Devlin has been working in special education for more than 30 years, with 25 years at MSU. Her advanced graduate students help carry out the annual planning and coordination for Camp Jigsaw, which serves as part of their capstone project.

Devlin says some of the common Autism Spectrum Disorder characteristics she and other counselors try to help campers with include language deficits, social reciprocity issues, or the ability to engage socially with others, as well as ritualistic behaviors.

The national symbol for autism awareness––a jigsaw puzzle piece––represents the complexity of Autism Spectrum Disorder. The puzzle piece reflects the individuality of people affected and the idea that every person on the spectrum is themselves a unique puzzle. Parents and teachers must put together the pieces to figure out how to best encourage strengths and build on weaknesses.

Immeasurable impact for Edmund Gaskin

For Edmund Gaskin and his supportive Columbus family, navigating Autism Spectrum Disorder has been a journey, and one in which he’s come a long way.

Summer marked his fourth year at Camp Jigsaw, but the benefits he’s brought home from camp are too numerous to count says his mother, Gaines Gaskin.

“He has loved it, and it has been wonderful for him,” she says. When he was 14, Edmund wasn’t keen on spending the night at camp. Sandy Devlin, professor of curriculum, instruction and special education and director of the camp, says it’s not uncommon for families with children who have autism to never have been apart overnight.

Gaines Gaskin said since the family lives only 30 minutes from the MSU campus, Edmund was able to go to Camp Jigsaw during the day and come home for the night, but he took a big step as he got older and decided he would spend the night at Camp Jigsaw for the first time during his third year.

Devlin is passionate about helping campers achieve a greater level of independence.

“He has come so far with the social skills,” his mother also says.
Speech––that’s another skill he’s greatly improved. “He walks right up to somebody and tries to start a conversation. That’s gotten a lot better,” Gaines says.

Although Edmund has high functioning abilities, Gaines says it’s easy for kids like him to fall through the cracks. She says Camp Jigsaw has provided a wonderful service to him, and she only wishes it could be offered more than once a year.

“We are learning with him,” she adds.

“You have your very high functioning folks on the spectrum, and basically their only problem is the lack of social skills, such as problems making eye contact and with social reciprocity. They basically stay to themselves,” Devlin says.

“However, the lower functioning kids on the spectrum have trouble with the language and communication skills, social reciprocity and also the repetitive types of behaviors that may manifest in hand flapping or pacing, for example.

They do that because they’re very sensitive to the environment, and if they become over stimulated they’ll start the repetitive types of behaviors.

“The kids who have high functioning autism may have just problems with the social skill issues and minimal or milder problems with the rest,” Devlin says.
Moore points out as the campers play in the swimming pool at the university’s Sanderson Center that they truly represent the autism spectrum in a nutshell because the variety of campers illustrates the variety of the spectrum––some functioning highly while others face more limitations. Each faces his or her own individual “puzzle.”

Devlin is quick to emphasize that while Autism Spectrum Disorder is challenging, people with autism are special.

“It’s so important for people to understand that folks on the spectrum are valuable. We’ve got to be an advocate, and we’ve got to accept diversity,” Devlin says.

Roemello Isaac came back to camp this year, not as a participant but in a counselor role. After graduating from Starkville High School in 2013, Isaac attended Mississippi State this past year. His mother Fransen Isaac says her son’s first year in college wasn’t the best academically, but he is continuing to work on study skills and life skills such as time management which she expects will help him improve. She agrees that while the week of camp itself is a valuable experience that her son truly enjoys, the most valuable element is the lasting positive influences that campers take away at camp’s end.

“There are no words really to explain what camp has done for him and our family. Dr. Devlin and Camp Jigsaw have helped tremendously,” Fransen Isaac says.

She explains that Roemello used to have difficulty ordering a Subway sandwich. The choices of sandwich toppings at the restaurant were somewhat overwhelming. Roemello, who has Asperger syndrome, a social disorder on the autism spectrum, deferred to his family to make simple decisions for him.

In addition to becoming better equipped to interact in social situations, such as ordering at a restaurant, Roemello also has had better success with making friends.

“He can sit down and have an interest in somebody else now,” Fransen Isaac says.

“He learned how to introduce himself. Before, he would just stand back and hope that no one would notice him. Now, he can walk up and say ‘Hello, I’m Roemello,’ and to us that is a major accomplishment,” she says.

Roemello says his favorite part of the week was going to Lake Tiak O’Khata, a family-owned lake and resort area in nearby Louisville. Devlin says fun recreational activities during camp may seem like simply entertainment on the surface, but in fact every part of the camp itinerary is designed to encourage participants to practice every-day social and life skills.

By Allison Matthews, Photography by Russ Houston