The end of March usually signals to Prashna Sachchithananthan, Director of Programs and Services at the SAAAC Autism Centre, and her team to begin preparations for summer camp which includes registering families, recruiting camp counsellors, brainstorming activities, and mapping out community outings. The summer of 2020 was scheduled to be the busiest summer camp ever for the Centre, but like much of the world, Prashna found herself in limbo when COVID-19 created a nation-wide lockdown.
“It was definitely chaotic,” says Prashna referring to the days after the Centre shutdown. “I felt incredibly sad for our families. Just like them, we had no clue what the next steps were.”
For over 3 months, families languished at home.
“We had parents tells us that all the skills their kids learned in Centre – from verbal communication to independent living skills – were slowly diminishing without practice and instruction” says Prashna.
As the lockdown dragged on, more and more families were pleading for support. As a response, the Centre began providing caregiver support webinars through videoconferencing platforms. Like many community agencies, the SAAAC Autism Centre began transitioning to online support. This new incorporation of technology into service delivery encouraged Prashna to think in new ways.
Virtual Summer Camp is Born
“In my personal life, I was using teleconferencing to stay in touch with friends and family,” says Prashna. “I was also using a lot of curbside pick up orders from my favourite local restaurants. That’s when I thought, we could apply the same technology and process to our programs – and SAAAC’s Virtual Summer Camp was born.”
The virtual summer camp required campers to attend virtual classes delivered through the Microsoft Teams platform. Prashna and her team prepared activities and materials required for each session, which are packed and picked up by parents one week in advance – SAAAC’s version of curbside pickup. Families get to keep these activity boxes, which are an added value of the camp.
Though this was a completely new experience for everyone involved, the SAAAC team knew it was critical to have as much of a classroom experience as possible for the program.
“We have a structure,” says Prashna. “We have designated activities that include arts and crafts, physical activity, music, among others – we try to deliver these activities with as much consistency and engagement as possible.”
Typical sessions last 2 hours daily, but the amount of work that goes into each session is significant.
Gowri Kobikrishna had doubts of the new format and how her 23-year-old son would respond. “I didn’t expect him to be happy when we did the virtual summer camp”, Gowri says, “but because he could see his friends and his teachers he was smiling.” Although Niro still needs help with this new form of learning, the program helps engage him and keep him mentally stimulated throughout the lockdown, which was welcomed by Gowri. “We appreciate this type of support from SAAAC. We know it’s not easy and very new, but we appreciate the attempt and the affect it is having on Niro.”
A Team Effort
An enormous effort goes into creating daily virtual sessions. Prashna leads a three-person team, which includes behavioural therapists Jaismiga Pushparajah and Rashmiya Jude- Xavier, and a legion of volunteers.
Each activity and teaching aid is hand made by the team. “It is not suprising for this team to pull 10-12 hours per day creating these activity boxes families could use weekly,” says Prashna. “This is an incredible team, and we all do this because we want to see our campers continue to develop and grow, especially in these challenging times.”
A New Frontier
SAAAC’s Virtual Summer Camp ended August 31, but the program allowed SAAAC’s leadership team to rethink how they can deliver programs going forward.
“The mission of the SAAAC Autism Centre has always been to make autism care equitable for all Canadians,” says Executive Director Geetha Moorthy. “Leveraging technology to deliver services during these tough times and in the future to remote places across the country, speaks to the spirit of SAAAC, and I am grateful to the creative and hard-working minds innovating to make our operations still possible.”
Want to help SAAAC provide more services like Virtual Summer Camp through the pandemic? You can make a donation here to power our services: https://saaac.kindful.com/?campaign=1067840