Families

This Bellingham program makes sure your autistic child doesn’t step backwards during summer break

FACES Autism Summer Program students play with a parachute at Zuanich Point Park.
FACES Autism Summer Program students play with a parachute at Zuanich Point Park. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

During summer break, most children undergo some form of learning regression. But for children on the autism spectrum, that regression can be more profound, both academically and behaviorally.

FACES Northwest, a local non-profit, helps combat learning entropy by offering the only summertime program in Whatcom County for kids with autism.

Beginning the first week of July and continuing for seven more weeks, FACES NW’s summer program runs each Monday through Thursday from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and takes place in classrooms made available by the Bellingham School District.

The program accepts about 25 entries per summer, helping kids as young as 5 and adults as old as 26. Each person receives an instructional assistant for one-on-one help.

Karlene Umbaugh, a FACES NW board member, has been a part of the program since its inception, helping found the non-profit in 1997 with other parents of autistic children.

Her son, diagnosed with autism and Tourette syndrome, has participated in every summer program since he was 5. He’s now 24 and working part-time at a local grocery store. Umbaugh says the camp has made a difference academically when he was younger and, now that he’s out of school, with social skills.

We do a huge number of different types of activities. ... By getting that chance, they might find something that they truly love.

Karlene Umbaugh, a FACES NW board member

Each day mornings are spent mostly in-classroom, focused on academic learning, speech therapy and therapeutic activities, such as social skill groups, dance instruction and even yoga. A teacher oversees each of the four groups, which are separated based on age.

Afternoons are spent engaged in mostly-outdoor community activities, including overnight camping, horseback riding, swimming and kayaking.

“We do a huge number of different types of activities,” Umbaugh says. “A lot of those activities our kids might not like; it might be hard for them. But it gives them the chance to try. By getting that chance, they might find something that they truly love.”

The program has taken place at Sehome High School, but due to construction, Umbaugh says it likely will occur at another location this year.

Program costs run about $5,000 per person, Umbaugh says. The high cost is mainly due to the large number of staff assistants needed for one-on-one help.

However, there are ways to lessen the cost to each family, including obtaining funds through the Developmental Disabilities Administration (DDA), an Extended School Year (ESY) contract through a student’s school district or assisting FACES with fundraising events, such as the auction it has each spring.

For more information, visit the organization’s website at facesnorthwest.com.

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