BELLEVILLE, Ill. - Standing in front of 32 children with autism, Chris Gibson patiently gives instructions for their field trip to Purina Farms in Gray Summit. Gibson calls the children her "kiddos."
"Our big challenge is when we're in a big group like this," said Gibson. "The noise level can be really intense and some of them and some of them have sensory needs, so they're overstimulated easily, so the biggest challenge is keeping everybody focused on the activities around them."
As predicted, one of the campers had to go outside to calm down from too much noise and stimulation near the dairy cows.
"He's not a real verbal kiddo, so he can't say to us 'it's hurting my ears, it's too loud', so he shows us by covering up and hitting at us. We'll take him for a walk, get a drink, relax him, and then he'll be able to come back and participate some more," said Gibson.
You might think the autism instructor for Belleville District 118 would need some time off during the summer.
"Some days are tough," said Gibson. "It's not always easy, but it's not only great for the child but it's great respite for the families at home. You can't just call a babysitter and say 'Hey, can you come over?' These are tough kids. You need somebody who's trained to handle that sort of behavior."
Gibson recognized several years ago, there were few summer activities for children with autism in Belleville and southwestern Illinois communities, so she started a summer camp in her back yard.
"Two summers in a row it would be the end of the school year and parents would call me and say 'what can we do this summer? Are there any camps around that we can participate in?" said Gibson.
For the past four years, Gibson has watched her ADAPT4Autism summer camp grow from 10 to 40 children, like Nathan Little.
"I don't have full-fledged autism," said Little. "In fact I have something called Asperger's Syndrome, which sounds like something you shouldn't say on TV. It's basically a place that can help me with my quirks."
Gibson has taught Joe Kraus since grade school, helping him control temper tantrums brought on by his autism. Now he's one of 15 camp counselors for ADAPT4Autism.
"These kids have temper tantrums. I had that too," said Krause.
It costs $250 per child for six weeks of summer camp. It's a challenge to pay her staff, yet keep the camp affordable.
"My goal is to keep the program as cheap as possible for the families because we already know that if you have a child on the autism spectrum, the cost to raise that child is six times greater than the cost to raise a typically developing child," said Gibson. "We to this point haven't had to say no. We figure it out. We call different businesses, we call neighbors, we call whoever we think we can call to say 'hey we have a kiddo, they want to participate in the camp. Can you help us out?'"
Despite shaking the money tree to keep the camp affordable, and despite bruises from biting and hitting, said this is what she is meant to do.
"I don't know why this is my gift. but I truly believe that this is my gift, to serve children with autism."
For more information about ADAPT4Autism, www.adapt4autism.org.