A boy thrives in the great outdoors

On Christmas Eve day 8-year-old James McCrackyn and his dog Comet took off to explore the wooded trails at Vashon’s Camp Terra, with camp owner Erin Kenny matching James stride for stride.

With the winter sun filtering through the towering Douglas firs and James and Kenny talking about Santa and Thomas the Train, the scene might have come from a holiday movie. In fact, James is autistic, and his visit to the five-acre camp was a nature-based therapy session — a new approach to working with kids that Kenny is pioneering on Vashon and that she hopes will someday be a standard therapy for children with autism.

“When children are outdoors, there are all kinds of ways they benefit physically, emotionally and mentally,” said Kenny, one of the founders of Cedarsong Nature School, located at Camp Terra.

While behaviors in autistic children vary, social, cognitive and emotional problems are common, as are difficulties processing sensory information. To that end, among the many therapies children with autism often receive is sensory integration therapy, designed to challenge the child’s senses so he or she can better function in the routines of daily life, according to Kenny.

This treatment is typically provided indoors in a room meant to engage and stimulate children, but Kenny — a long-time naturalist who has held summer nature camps for kids for 10 years and runs the all-outdoor Cedarsong preschool on the same land — had a different vision after meeting James and Adam Kraabel, an 11-year-old with Aspergers’ Syndrome, a mild form of autism, and a penchant for nature.

Now, twice a week, James heads to Camp Terra for Sensory Integration Nature Therapy. There, amidst the firs, cedars and thigh-high ferns, James spends four hours each week with Kenny in nature’s classroom — where, as Kenny says, he wanders, runs and hums his away around the forest.

In standard sensory integration therapy, the child engages in activities that combine sensory input with motion, according to Kenny. She views the forest as the most natural place for that kind of activity: There are sticks to break for camp fires, fallen trees to clamber on, hideouts to build, branches to hang from, slugs to touch and berries to pick.

Raven Pyle-McCrackyn, James’ mother, said she knows the nature therapy is making a difference in a multitude of ways. She recalls that once he was so overwhelmed by the gooey insides of a pumpkin that he threw up. But at Camp Terra, he gets covered with mud and is unfazed. On Saturday mornings before he goes, he’s often unable to concentrate and wanders around the house making odd noises.

“When we pick him up, he’s a different kid. When we get home, he wants to talk to us about what happened and interact with us,” she said. “He acts like a normal 8-year-old kid. It’s like a sensory re-set when he goes there.”

James first went to Camp Terra two years ago when a school break at Chautauqua threatened to wreak havoc with Pyle-McCrackyn’s work schedule. He made it smoothly through the first two days but not the third and had to leave early.

At the time, he spoke only in two-word sentences and stayed on the fringe of the group, unable to interact with any of the other kids.

He went to Camp Terra three times that year, and he loved it, his mother said.

“That was the best week of his life whenever he would go,” Pyle-McCrackyn said.

Tom and Jean Kraabel tell a similar story about their son Adam, who has been attending day camp at Camp Terra on school breaks for the past few years.

“So many things he does are just a struggle,” his father said. “It is easier for him — it’s a confidence builder. He loves it and expects to go every time.”

Kenny is a registered counselor in Washington and was once a lawyer. As an undergraduate, she studied early childhood and environmental education at Evergreen State College.

In recent years, she has been an advocate of getting children outside. She cites a recent National Wildlife Federation study that found children who spend unstructured time outside play more creatively, have lower stress levels, possess stronger immune systems and hold greater respect for themselves and others than their more indoor-oriented counterparts. Typically, though, children in the United States spend only 30 minutes of unstructured time outside each week.

As Kenny saw James and Adam enjoy camp in their own ways, she began to study the disorder, its treatments and how nature might benefit them and other children on the autism spectrum. About a year and a half ago, Kenny thought it might be beneficial to have James spend one-on-one time with her.

“Her cost was not as crazy as other therapies we tried. It seemed like a small investment for a possible big return,” Pyle-McCrackyn said.

At roughly the same time, James’ longtime speech therapist, Islander Paula Herrington, suggested they ramp up James’ therapies considerably. The parents pulled out the stops, tapped the college fund family members had set up and welcomed Comet, a highly trained therapy dog, in March. James’ schedule is a busy one: speech and occupational therapies four days a week and physical therapy three days a week, as well as some therapy time at Chautauqua.

On top of that is time in the woods with Kenny twice a week. One of those days, Kenny brings her 6-year-old son, who likes James; for the first time in his life, James has a friend.

He has come a long way during this time.

“He is a totally different kid,” Pyle-McCrackyn said.

Herrington agrees James has a made a lot of progress and that his time with Kenny and his friendship with her son have brought considerable benefits. But she cautions against giving too much credit to the nature therapy, when so many hands have been helping James.

“I truly believe it was the whole package,” she said.

Through her work, she has seen many ideas touted as magic cures for autism and hopeful parents flock to them, desperate to help their children.

“As a professional, I need to be very cautious about promoting activities that are not empirically validated,” she said.

At Camp Terra, Kenny said she hopes that they will have that empirical evidence someday to lend credibility to what Kenny and Pyle-McCrackyn say they’ve witnessed in James’ life.

Kenny pointed to his experience at a day camp last October as a sign of the progress he has made.

For the whole camp, James was fully part of the group, reading a story out loud, singing songs and roasting marshmallows. Kenny took a picture of that camp — with everyone, including James, gathered around — and shared it with Pyle-McCrackyn, who recalled it clearly.

“You never could have said, ‘Oh, yeah, the one in the red coat is the autistic one,’” she said. “That’s a long way to come in two years.”

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