Attendees get ‘Royall’ treatment at Moncure camp for autistic children, adults

Posted 7/12/19

MONCURE — It’s around 1 p.m. on Friday, time for the Camper Celebration at Camp Royall.

As Disney songs play in the background, campers reunite with parents. Some parents run to their kids, …

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Attendees get ‘Royall’ treatment at Moncure camp for autistic children, adults

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MONCURE — It’s around 1 p.m. on Friday, time for the Camper Celebration at Camp Royall.

As Disney songs play in the background, campers reunite with parents. Some parents run to their kids, and vice versa. At this camp, like many others, it’s the first time kids are separate from their parents for a number of days.

But what’s unique about Camp Royall includes the staff to camper ratio (1 to 1 or 1 to 2) and the fact that all campers, and some staff, are on the autism spectrum.

At the ending celebration, each camper is recognized for something they did during the week, something unique. One is recognized for his artistic abilities and one of his digital pieces of art is shown. Another camper demonstrates his basketball skills by draining a three-pointer on the first try, earning the “Half Court Hero Award.” A third dances to a song from the movie “Black Panther.”

All are applauded and cheered as they perform their talents in front of a crowd, something different for those on the autism spectrum. According to Camp Director Sara Gage, Camp Royall is all about celebrating people for who they are, not for what they’re not.

“We want you to be the king of the world while you’re here,” Gage said. “They have great skills and abilities to offer us. You just have to understand how to access that. I think that culture of acceptance is really what helps our campers thrive.”

Camp Royall was founded in 1997, but the Autism Society of North Carolina, which runs the program, has been helping those on the autism spectrum participate in camping since 1972.

Even as recently as 2000, autism was less understood and less prevalent than it is today. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 150 children were identified as being on the spectrum at the turn of the 21st century. Today, that ratio is 1 in 59.

What autism looks like depends on the person. Gage cites the quote, “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” The disability looks different for each individual, but it’s usually some deficiency or difference in communication. That can vary from high-functioning autism, in which individuals will be able to do most things but have trouble communicating or handling every day situations, to not being able to speak or take care of themselves.

Camp Royall serves individuals across the spectrum throughout the year and, according to Gage, takes great care to accommodate whatever the individual camper needs. The dining hall and sleeping cabins have solo rooms for people who have sensory processing issues or need space, and the staff to camper ratios are designed to provide a personalized camp experience.

That structure extends to the list of gym activities spelled out on a whiteboard when campers walk in to pictures of what songs will be sung during campfire time each night. Seats in the dining hall are usually assigned to create consistency and comfort for campers.

“Those on the spectrum often feel like the world is a little out of control for them,” Gage said, “and we try to give them some control and some understanding of what’s expected.”

The camp is the Autism Society of North Carolina’s “flagship program,” according to David Laxton, the organization’s director of communications. Along with providing a safe and fun space for the campers, Laxton said it’s also served both parents and caretakers of those on the spectrum as well as the staff that hang out with them each week.

“Camp Royall has provided those thousands of families a week of respite that they can use to practice self-care, reconnect with other family members, and recharge mentally and physically,” Laxton said. “Camp Royall has also educated communities across our state through our camp counselors and volunteers. Those people received intensive training about autism and learned how to apply the lessons of camp to their lives and communities.”

Camp Royall may be tucked out of sight off of Pittsboro Moncure Road, but its impact has spread around the country and around the world. Gage said former campers will often come back as staff, and this summer Camp Royall has attracted staff from places like Delaware, New York, the Netherlands, India and Japan.

But most importantly, it’s the campers, the people that come often to have their first camp experience. Although experiences are specialized and personalized, campers will participate in normal summer camp activities like fishing, hiking, arts and crafts and boating.

“Everybody deserves to go to camp,” Gage said. “Everybody should have the opportunity to have that rite of passage. For individuals with autism, they just need a little bit more thoughtful planning and structure.”

Reporter Zachary Horner can be reached at or on Twitter at @ZachHornerCNR.


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