Camp Artism supports artists' identities and skill sets

Jul. 6—Tara Spencer said she noticed her son Max Spencer's interest in art when he was around 7 or 8 years old. Max Spencer began drawing designs on lined paper and eventually taught himself how to transpose drawings onto his computer. Now, he creates animated videos and posts them online.

"Everything he knows about the computer and animation, he's learned all on his own," Tara Spencer said. "It's all self motivated, and I'm not there telling him to do it, nobody is. He's done all this on his own. He's very critical of himself, but I think it's amazing."

Camp Artism offers artists like Max Spencer an open and welcoming environment to build their skills and identities. It champions and connects autistic artists with professionals in the art, film, performing and production industries. The camp also teaches life and social skills while removing barriers to inclusion and collaboration.

South Carolina native Ashley Drayton was inspired to establish the House of Artists Foundation and Camp Artism after working and attending summer camps throughout her youth. She noticed that some participants struggled to form connections and receive the attention they needed in traditional summer camps.

Drayton found that art was an excellent way to "meet them where they are," Gracie McDonald, program assistant, said.

Five years ago, Drayton opened Camp Artism to benefit the lives of autistic artists around the country. The base camp is in Powder Springs, but the camp has spread far beyond Cobb County. This is the first year it has established satellite camps in other major cities around the country.

"We've kind of been inundated, actually, with requests from families all over the country asking us to bring Camp Artism to their area," McDonald said. "And people are willing to travel across the states to try to get there."

This year, Camp Artism will run July 25 to July 31 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and lasts six to seven days. The camp costs $2,000 per artist and it includes all of the workshops, t-shirts, lunches and snacks. The camp is open to ages 12 and up. The artists arrive in the morning with their families and begin the day with affirmations during which everybody writes and shares their affirmations with the group, McDonald said.

The artists head to the first of two workshops for the day from 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. The workshops can be anything from voice overs to FX makeup to underwater videography. The workshops are designed to help the artists develop life, social and vocational skills, McDonald said.

The workshops are taught by professionals who work to mentor the artists and support their interests. McDonald said they don't think of the artists as students and the professionals as teachers. Instead, everyone is learning; they are co-teaching and co-learning, she said.

"We think that the artists have just as much to offer the world of art as the professionals that we collaborate with or who partner with us," McDonald said. "What we try to do is we invite professionals to collaborate [with the artists]."

The Camp Artism website states it has a 95% retention rate, which means 95% of campers return the following year.

"I think, because of the kind of culture of Camp Artism, the parents also have bonded," McDonald said. "The families have spent time together outside of camp, the parents are connected. So that will help the families come back together next year to be convened as a group."

Max Spencer attended Camp Artism for two summers in middle school. After speaking with founder Drayton, Tara Spencer said she could see Drayton's passion for the work and knew that it would be a safe, nurturing environment for Max.

"[The camp] definitely gave him more confidence in his abilities, especially with the voiceover techniques and the editing, which is really important to him and his art," Tara Spencer said.

Tara Spencer said it was a relief for him to be around other artists with similar challenges. She said the environment was nurturing and there was no pressure on him to perform at a certain level or meet any milestones.

One of Tara Spencer's concerns was that the camp may not understand how autistic children each have their own specific set of challenges.

"[At Camp Artism] there were so many varying points on the autism spectrum that were represented within the children, and there didn't seem to be any difficulty with managing that or being helpful to each child," Tara Spencer said.

Additionally, the camp and the House of Artists Foundation connected Tara Spencer to other parents with autistic children who directed her to resources she wouldn't have otherwise found, like the IDEAL Program at Georgia State University. The program assists students with special needs in obtaining a degree, Tara Spencer said. Now, Max Spencer is working towards a degree in art at Georgia State University.

Forming friendships with the staff and other participating artists builds trust in the artists and encourages them to take more social and creative risks and to leave their comfort zone, according to McDonald. It helps them "fuse together with a group of artists, which is also supportive for their identities as an artist and not just as young adults with autism," she said.

The camp employs a variety of volunteers like educators, nurses, students, therapists and more. They also have a paid staff and an advisory council which is made up entirely of autistic artists who are participating in the camp. The artists on the advisory council share what they think the camp should entail, how transition should work and how the staff and professionals should speak about autism to the broader community, McDonald said.

"It gives them an opportunity to self advocate in the professional world too," she said. "The professional partners that we meet and work with, they're learning about how autistic artists want to be perceived."

McDonald said they hope the camp can continue to expand and start to encompass more industries like aviation professionals, engineers and architects.

A major part of Camp Artism in Atlanta is the CPR, EMS and driving workshops. This year, Camp Artism will work with the Cobb County Police and Fire Department. The artists gain experience driving golf carts, practicing driver awareness, reading road signs and interacting with police officers, McDonald said.

They learn fire safety and take home a fire extinguisher, and they learn how to respond and react in an emergency situation.

The preparedness training is one of the biggest reasons parents reach out to the camp because they recognize how vital these life skills are, McDonald said.

The Atlanta Camp Artism has a max attendance of about 15 people. McDonald said they want the artists to gain professional development so they can leave Camp Artism with prior work experience and enter the workforce when they're ready. To learn more about Camp Artism, logon to