One clear, cool afternoon in mid-November, on the banks of Cullowhee Creek on the Western Carolina University campus, a small-scale fishing derby was under way.
Three boys, working with WCU recreational therapy students Shawn Chapman and Megan Hunt, took turns fly fishing for trout in the creek’s quick, shallow waters across from the Ramsey Regional Activity Center. From the grassy banks, the boys’ moms, dads, siblings and friends offered encouragement.
“Oh, I hope they catch one,” said an anxious Dana Frady, mother to Dillon, 12, one of the fishermen and a sixth-grader at Cullowhee Valley School.
“That one’s going to get bit there, get ready,” said Alex Bell, a professional fishing guide from Sylva who offered humor and encouragement with each cast. The fish that wiggled free he termed LDRs – “long-distance releases.”
Many boys welcome a chance to fish, but for these three – Austin Coburn, 14, an eighth-grader at the HUB School of Alternatives; Isaac Ralston, 10, a fourth-grader at Cullowhee Valley School; and Frady – the opportunity was especially sweet. All three boys are on the autism spectrum, and recreational activities specifically adapted to their abilities are few. Austin, son of Jane and Andy Coburn, associate director of WCU’s Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, was so excited he’d had difficulty concentrating at school that day.
Autism affects the normal development of the brain in the areas of social interaction, communication skills and cognitive function, according to the National Autism Association. Individuals with autism can show marked differences – thus, they are on the “autism spectrum” – but typically they have difficulties in verbal and nonverbal communication, social interactions and leisure or play activities. The NAA reports that the disorder affects one in 150 people in the U.S. and is diagnosed four times more often in boys than girls.
Chapman and Hunt organized the fly fishing event as a project for a methods class taught by Jennifer Hinton, WCU associate professor of recreational therapy. Bell, retired principal of Smoky Mountain High School (also a graduate of WCU’s educational administration graduate program) and the owner of AB’s Fly Fishing Guide Service, served as Chapman and Hunt’s “coach” on the project, working with them throughout the semester. Through the Adaptive Fly Fishing Institute, Bell teaches adaptive fly fishing and also teaches fellow instructors in the practice. There is limited research on adaptive fly fishing, Hinton said, but the WCU students theorized it would benefit children on the autism spectrum physically, psychologically and socially.
The fly fishing was adapted to the children’s abilities. For instance, when teaching the children to cast, the instructors asked them to aim for hula hoops on the ground rather than asking them to reference numbers on an imaginary clock face. “It was amazing the difference once we put down a visual cue. It improved their focus so much,” Bell said. Chapman or Hunt stood with each boy as he fished and helped with the casting motion.
In honor of the event, staff of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission stocked that section of Cullowhee Creek with about 40 brook trout from the Bobby N. Setzer State Fish Hatchery in Brevard. “We’re here to provide angling opportunities for various people, and we were proud to step up and make that happen,” said David Deaton, a WRC fish production supervisor. Accessible hunting, fishing, boating and other wildlife-related activities for all N.C. residents is the agency’s primary goal, Deaton said. The boys and their families were thrilled with the results, with each child catching at least one fish.
A week later, Kathy Ralston said her son Isaac was still talking about it. “He’s looked forward to fly fishing since we moved here,” said Ralston, who with her husband, Bill, an orthopedic surgeon for the MedWest system, and their four children relocated to Jackson County from Kansas City, Mo., in August 2010. Though it’s unusual, the Ralstons have always had Isaac, their oldest child, participate in group activities such as county league soccer. While at times it’s been uncomfortable emotionally and physically for her son, Ralston firmly believes it has helped him socially. But participation has gotten more difficult as Isaac has grown older and the physical and emotional disparities between Isaac and his peers have become more pronounced. “It really takes the right coach to reach out and help them become involved,” she said. Ralston and other parents expressed a desire for more recreational opportunities for their children with autism spectrum disorder.
Isaac regularly participates in two activities on the WCU campus specifically for children on the autism spectrum. One is a social skills group for adolescents that is a collaborative effort of WCU speech-language pathology and recreational therapy faculty and students. That group, started by speech-language pathologist and WCU clinical faculty member Julie Ogletree, typically attracts about six children ages 9 to 15, is free and meets on campus once a week. Hinton, who helps run this group, envisions it moving to a clinical space when the WCU College of Health and Human Sciences moves to its new building across Highway 107, scheduled for occupation in fall 2012.
The other program, new this fall, is run by Dragonfly Forest, a nonprofit organization that allows children with autism and other medical needs the opportunity to have fun and simply be children in a safe, caring environment. The Dragonfly program, structured in small groups so that children with autism spectrum disorder can “access the fun,” meets on campus once a week and has approximately five participants ages 8 to 13 (children ages 7 to 17 are welcome). Seven WCU students from psychology, recreational therapy and education staff the program, serving as administrators and planning activities such as scavenger hunts and kickball. There is a charge to participate, but scholarships are available, and no child ever has been turned away, said Dragonfly’s autism program director, Sylvia van Meerten. (While Dragonfly Forest is based in Philadelphia, van Meerten, who has a decade of experience in the autism field, lives in Asheville and also has launched programs at the University of North Carolina Asheville and Appalachian State University.) The plan is for two six-week sessions during spring 2012, and van Meerten expects attendance to grow.
“It’s so fun to do,” said van Meerten, who believes activities for the sake of fun are important to the quality of life of children on the autism spectrum. “A lot of the parents say it’s such a pleasure for them to drop off their children at a place where they want to go.”