For 13-year-old Max S., who asked not to use his last name, summer camp used to be torture. The other campers, he says, teased him and made constant jokes at his expense. "You name it, and they did it," he recalled matter of factly.
But that changed this year when Max, who has a mop of black hair but who makes eye contact only fleetingly, enrolled in Hill Top Summer Camp.
A day facility housed on the Rosemont campus of the eponymous preparatory school, it caters to children like Max, who has Asperger's Syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism.
"I like the kids here because they don't make fun of you," he said, taking a break from a busy day outdoors.
Hill Top, which opened this summer, serves children with a range of learning disabilities, including ADHD and sensory integration issues, as well as Asperger's. Housed on a sprawling and picturesque 25 acres, it's like a typical camp in many ways: activities include swimming, sports, and arts-and-crafts, with electives like woodworking, wall-climbing and video production.
But developing social skills is an integral part of Hill Top's day-to-day activities. One New Jersey mother whose son has Asperger's and is a Hill Top camper put it this way: "My son's idea of a good summer is being locked in his room all day and not interacting with anyone."
Social-interaction workshops — which encourage campers to communicate with each other, make eye contact and help forge friendships — are therefore an integral part of the schedule.
"Talking about eye contact isn't the same thing as playing basketball with other campers and realizing why eye contact is important," explained Ryan Wexelblatt, the camp's founder and director. He is a social worker by profession and concentrates on special-needs students as a Hill Top school counselor during the academic year. "The idea is for the kids to have fun and learn social skills in the moment."
If a group is playing basketball, for example, but one camper is off to the side with his arms crossed and not taking part in any way, counselors will engage the other children in a conversation about how they think the other boy is feeling and what to do about it. Also, every Monday morning begins with the campers talking about their social goals for the week — ranging from being more patient, making more friends or learning to strike up a conversation.
"Kids with learning disabilities struggle at camp socially because often the environment is big and too fast-paced, or the counselors don't know how to deal with them," explained Wexelblatt. "Lots of these kids end up at traditional camps because parents hope that just being with mainstream kids will help their kids develop the necessary social skills. But it doesn't work that way."
In its first year, Hill Top has attracted some 40 campers, about half of them Jewish, though the camp itself is not affiliated with any religious group or denomination.
Wexelblatt, a former Hebrew-school teacher whose career includes stints at a number of local Jewish camps, says that the high Jewish concentration is hardly coincidental.
"Jewish parents tend to be more assertive in seeking out support when their children are having problems," he said.
According to Deborah Gettes, the special-needs educational consultant at the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education in Philadelphia, "it is not proven that Jewish people are more predisposed to Asperger's than other populations."
The number of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders within the Jewish community is increasing, she adds, as it is within the general population.
Gettes said that she has conducted a number of workshops aimed at training teachers in local religious schools to deal with autistic children in the classroom. She has also trained teenagers to work with special-needs children at their respective synagogues.
Parents and educators who work closely with this group do say that, while there is no proven genetic link between Jews and disorders like Asperger's, Jewish children are often over-represented at special-needs schools and programs like Hill Top.
"In Judaism, education is such a priority," stated Carren Abrams, whose son, David, 14, is at Hill Top. "When we look at a kid struggling in first, second or third grade and we see how teachers push these kids off to the side, we become stronger advocates."
To be sure, for parents like Abrams, Hill Top presents a welcome resource because children with high-functioning autism or similar disorders are often overlooked. The Jewish community has schools, camps and other programming for children in the mainstream system and, alternatively, for children with severe disabilities like mental retardation, Down's syndrome and less functioning forms of autism.
But children with Asperger's — who look like other kids and often have higher-than-average IQs, despite their learning and social disabilities — are sometimes left with little support, according to parents.
As Abrams, who resides in Wayne, put it: "It's an invisible disability."
As a result, navigating certain rites of passage can also be difficult.
A New Jersey mother, who asked to go unnamed, said that her son won't go to synagogue — let alone have a Bar Mitzvah — because he feels uncomfortable in crowds.
And campers like Zachary Block, 11, of Chester Springs, is at a mainstream Hebrew school at his synagogue, but says that his classmates are bullies, and that his teacher doesn't seem to realize it.
"I have a hard time making friends, and the other kids get me in trouble," he says. "They annoy me, and then the teacher thinks that I do it to them."
Block, who is active in an autism nonprofit group as part of his Bar Mitzvah project, says that he would like it if his synagogue had a program for kids with similar learning disabilities. But barring one, he takes comfort in places like Hill Top: "It's easier to be with kids like me."