The HILL Center, in conjunction with the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, or CSD, at the University of Mississippi, hosted the first ever Summer Social Skills (S3) Camp. The camp was held at Willie Price Preschool during June and July.
The HILL Center serves children with moderate to severe expressive and receptive language disorders and offers practicum opportunities for graduate clinicians pursuing a degree in speech-language pathology.
Amy Livingston, MS, CCC-SLP, and Gina Keene, MA, CCC-SLP, run the HILL Center classes. They also oversee graduate and undergraduate students in practicum as they learn to work with children who have communication issues, many of whom are on the autism spectrum.
This S3 camp is something Livingston and Keene have been hoping to do for years. They’ve always been looking for opportunities to reach more children in the community. When they finally got the chance to do just that, they jumped at it.
“We were trying to figure out how we could see more kids,” Livingston said. “We have a great partnership with Willie Price, and they allowed us to use their space this summer, which has been unbelievable.”
Over the six weeks of the camp, children with speech, language, and/or social communication delays were paired 1:1 with neurotypical children, serving a total of 32 children, plus the occasional extra helper.
“We’re using a model called Stay, Play, Talk this summer,” Livingston said. “The research has shown that neurotypical peers help kids with social skill impairments more than practitioners like us can. It’s a two-way street. These neurotypical peers are learning how to interact with children with disabilities, but also helping children with disabilities see what typical play looks like and what typical interactions look like.”
Each week, campers worked on a specific social skill. They learned about appropriate greetings, friendship protocols, listening, taking turns and more.
Everyone helps each other learn a little more about what it takes to function in society.
“Some of the nice things we’ve seen through these relationships these kids are developing is that our kids not only have improved play and language skills, but they also have a chance to just interact with more people,” Keene said. “Our neurotypical peers can now go out into the world being more empathetic in the community. Hopefully, we’re making these small changes that will improve inclusion in our communities.”
Livingston said that a few of the neurotypical children at the camp have siblings there with special needs. She and Keene made sure to pair these children up with someone other than their sibling. Each child in this scenario benefits from this. The neurotypical sibling gets the opportunity to learn from a child who has needs that are different from their brother or sister, and with that they learn more empathy. They’re able to grow their understanding of the special needs community by understanding someone from outside their own family.
The kids with special needs benefit as well, because they now have the opportunity to learn from a new role model. There’s a balance to it.
Each day, there were eight undergraduate students working with neurotypical children and eight graduate students working with the children with special needs. Keene and Livingston, along with the primary investigator of the grant that funds the program, Dr. Susan Loveall, were able to create a new practicum class for the undergraduates in order for them to receive course credit for participating in the camp this summer.
Over the six weeks the camp operated, 16 children with special needs were served and slightly more neurotypical children were able to attend the camp as helpers. Each day, children participated in structured group sessions and individual sessions focusing on literacy and language skills, social communication and emotional regulation activities.
Everything done at the HILL Center is based heavily in research. Current studies indicate that the best way to help close those social gaps between children with special needs and neurotypical children is teaching social communication, emotional regulation and improving play skills.
The HILL Center is administered by CSD faculty Loveall; co-investigator, Dr. Rebecca Lowe and consultant, Dr. Kara Hawthorne.
For more information about the HILL School, their work in the community and how you can donate or get involved, email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.