A hairy beast towers over a 4-year-old girl as her parents relax on the porch of a nearby lodge, take in the view of treecovered mountains and sip a cool drink.
The usually shy girl steps toward the beast as it chews its breakfast. She bravely reaches out and touches the matted hair, then smiles. Encouragement comes to her from a therapist standing behind her, and the llama continues to eat the grass while other autistic children take a turn petting the animal.
For the past five years the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center has made this camp available for families who face the world of autism. For the parents, the stress of a normal day can be temporarily forgotten while at the Whispering Hope Ranch near Payson.
Theresa Cutler of Mesa attended the camp with her husband, Dave, their autistic son Paul, 4, and their daughter Cynthia, 6.
"An autistic child needs supervision 24 hours a day," Cutler said. "It’s like having a 1 1 /2-year-old toddler who doesn’t listen and doesn’t understand. And they stay that way."
Diagnosis of autism is increasing — about one in 250 children have autism — and the need for a support system for these families increases practically daily.
"Having an autistic child is exhausting, mentally and emotionally," Cutler said.
Cynthia asked, "Is Paul going to be autistic forever?" She fell apart after hearing the answer, "Yes."
With help from organizations such as the Hope Group, started in Mesa, and the National Charity League, a philanthropic group of mothers and daughters, more than 100 volunteers help provide three three-day camps each summer.
The staff of therapists, social workers and other habilitation professionals, many from the East Valley, work one on one with the autistic campers as siblings take advantage of other activities such as horseback riding, arts and crafts and singing in a campfire setting. The siblings work alongside the staff to allow the parents to enjoy their own activities stress-free.
The 40-acre ranch, which backs up to the Tonto National Forest, provides the guests a chance to interact with animals such as llamas, potbellied pigs and deer. The animals can provide a special connection for guests and are used as animal assisted therapy.
While some parents relax in a tai chi or yoga class, their children may be participating in sensory integration exercises. The ball pit, a flexible plastic tunnel, a small trampoline and large rubber balls are some of the activities that provide stimulation in the occupational therapy tent.
Autistic camper Matthew Resnik, 12, joins two music therapists in a gazebo overlooking a creek and selects a horn to play along with their guitar and drum. He sits on a large rubber ball, rolls around on his back and waits for his cue to toot his horn. Success is measured in small ways, and when Matthew plays a note at the right time, the music therapy is working its magic.
In another part of camp, 4-year-old Hayden rolls a plastic bowling ball toward 10 toy pins as they are being set up. The volunteer jumps out of the way and the pins scatter. A half-dozen counselors in a semicircle break into applause and a prize of a fake nose and glasses is given to the happy bowler.
Hayden quickly moves on and throws wet sponges at a young volunteer who sticks her head through a hole in a piece of wood painted like the sky. When the "target’s" face drips with water, the camper receives another prize and once again moves on.
Some of the parents gather in a cabin and talk about the challenges of living with autism. Denise Resnik, cofounder of the research center, said, "It’s an allconsuming disorder that affects the entire family. Where you go, how you sleep and how you feel, largely depend on that child with autism."
There are very few outlets for families living with autism to relax. The family camp offers a small bit of normalcy.
"Nothing could replace what we got from this camp on an emotional level," Cutler said. "It brought us back together as a family." Cynthia, upon her return from camp, tells her mother, "I would never want to trade Paul in. I