Interview with Angela Sullivan and Dr. Amy Donaldson of Camp Yakety Yak

Camp Yakety Yak is a social skills day camp supporting friendship development in children with special needs. They currently serve 171 children and adolescents with 220 staff including college and graduate students, teen camp counselors, as well as professionals in speech pathology, general & special education, occupational therapy, school counseling, school psychology, behavioral intervention, and nursing.

Angela Sullivan is a speech-language pathologist with 20 years of experience working with children in public school settings in Oregon, Washington and Alaska.  She founded Camp Yakety Yak in 2010 in response to the lack of accommodating activities for her child with ADHD. Angela received her Masters in Speech Pathology & Audiology from University of Nevada, Reno, and a Reading Specialist endorsement from George Fox University. She has served as an adjunct instructor at Portland State University in the Speech & Hearing Department, where she first met Dr. Amy Donaldson. She has served on the Executive Board of the Oregon Speech-Language Hearing Association. During the school year, works as a special education teacher for children with ASD in an inclusion program.

Camp Yakety Yak is a social skills day camp supporting friendship development in children with special needs. They currently serve 171 children and adolescents with 220 staff including college and graduate students, teen camp counselors, as well as professionals in speech pathology, general & special education, occupational therapy, school counseling, school psychology, behavioral intervention, and nursing.

Note: You should consult with your doctor or speech pathologist for recommendations on treatment. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of Dr. Donaldson and Ms. Sullivan and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of

What inspired you to start Camp Yakety Yak?

Angela Sullivan: My son was six years old at the time and had a diagnosis of ADHD and Mood Disorder. He was bright but was not able to follow directions and so would get kicked out of typical summer camps. My friend, another SLP, had a son with high functioning Autism. The boys were friends, and we also had two younger daughters. I suggested we start a camp ourselves for our kids and see if other families wanted to have their children join. We hosted the camp in her home and backyard that first year with about 10 children.

What does a day at camp Yakety Yak look like? How are social and communication lessons woven into the activities?

AS: Camp Yakety Yak tries to replicate all of the skills required for successful participation in school without the reading, writing and math. Campers rotate through a schedule of classes throughout the property. One 30 minute class focuses exclusively on social-emotional skills and the other three classes imbed those skills into fun, hands on projects or games. We even have a cooking class. Campers participate in a facilitated lunch and recess time where staff focus on sparking peer interaction. We start and end each day with an assembly so children practice those as well. The entire day is focused on camper interaction and emotional regulation skills.

Has any of your own research influenced the program over time? How has Camp Yakety Yak influenced or been a part of your own research at Portland State?

AS: Amy’s work is very influential at Camp Yakety Yak. She provides staff trainings on topics related to equity in peer relationships and provides ongoing consultation to camp administrators on the use of evidence based practice within a setting like ours.

Amy Donaldson: I’m uncertain if, or how, my research has influenced the camp; however, I have certainly admired and been inspired by the dedication of Angela and her colleagues in providing an opportunity for all kids to come together to play, communicate, and learn. That is most certainly an overarching philosophy of our work at Portland State University in the Autism and Social Communication Lab. We approach disability from a strengths-based perspective with the goal of self-agency, communication (in any form!) as the strongest form of self-advocacy, and promotion of opportunities for organic relationship development. This occurs when there is equity in the relationship between children. That is, if we promote or send the message that all children are equally responsible for successful communication and interactions, as well as equally responsible if communication breakdown occurs, then we avoid the challenges associated with traditional models that can place the neurotypical child in the role of teacher or helper. Doing so creates an imbalance and it’s difficult for authentic friendships to develop in such a context. Given these factors, our lab’s research has investigated the effectiveness of the Socialsibs intervention, which promotes the role of both participants in social interactions (child on the spectrum and neurotypical sibling) through use of sibling mediation and video modeling within a naturalistic context that supports a child’s motivation. Given the compatibility of this approach with Camp Yakety Yak’s tenets, we recently examined the feasibility of implementing the Socialsibs model within the CYY setting, modifying the model to match the group environment and including all children (those with and without siblings, as well as neurotypical peers attending camp). Preliminary data analysis indicated that children demonstrated use of strategies within teaching sessions and carryover of at least one out of three strategies to novel activities within camp. Children also expressed enthusiasm for joining the activities (e.g., “This is my favorite time at camp”; “I wish this class was longer. It’s always too short.”). These feasibility data will be used to seek funding for implementation of Socialsibs at a larger scale within CYY in the 2019 season.

What has changed since the camp began?

AS: The number of campers we serve has continued to grow from 10 that first year to over 150 with the support of 220 staff per summer. Our university partnerships have grown as well as our ability to hire more professionals to create a multi-disciplinary team. Finally, we have grown our program offerings from children who have high functioning Autism and ADHD to those with cognitive impairments, minimal verbal skills and physical disabilities. We have expanded the ages of the campers we serve from 5-15 and now are starting a young adult program focusing on developing skills to be a good employee and coworker.

What do special needs campers get out of Camp Yakety Yak that they may not get in the speech room, at therapy, in school, or at home?

AS: All of the professionals working at camp in the summer also work for a school district, so we see what the intensity of service that 5 hours a day, 5 days a week provides in developing social-emotional, behavioral and communication skills. In our “day jobs” we wish would could provide this intensity, but SLPs in our schools get at most 1 hour a week with children. We see more progress and at a faster rate at camp because every minute of the day is focused on skill building, not academics.

What do you learn from the kids that continue to come back each year?

AS: Many of our campers verbalize they have the goal of becoming a camp counselor when they are teenagers. They have mapped out how long that would take and the skills they would need to have in order to be in a helping role.

Part of the program includes parent support meetings. What have parents gotten out of the program beyond the improvements they have seen in their child?

AS: The camp hosts weekly Coffee, Tea and Empathy meetings which are meant to be a place to share your journey, network and build relationships. Parenting children who do not fit in the box can be a lonely experience. I was one of those parents. It was important to me that the camp not just be a summer camp but a community resource. Our board of directors host the meetings because they are camp parents themselves. We want parents to know they are not alone. Someone else has probably gone through what you are facing and we are here to help each other.

What impact has having neurotypical children in the camp had?

AS: At the camper team level, it is so beneficial to have kids on the team who are flexible and willing to try new things. Just having one child say,”that sounds like fun” can help the rest of the team get involved. Siblings of brothers and sisters with special needs are on each team, not with their sibling, but with other children who may struggle similarly as their sibling. This is eye-opening. Often the neurotypical sib naturally moves into a “friendship ambassador-type” role on the team and at the camp and this group also meets daily for a 15 minute snack separate from the rest of the camp. We want neurotypical siblings to have a time to connect with each other’s experiences facilitated by a school counselor.

What makes this experience a unique one for SLP students trying to meet experience requirements? How do you make sure these students get the most out of their experience?

AS: Often SLP students gain experience in a bubble. They have their SLP blinders on and only see the world through the SLP lens that they have been studying in classes. At Camp Yakety Yak, we try to help students take those blinders off and experience what a strong multi-disciplinary team is like. We want them to experience collaboration with special and general educators, occupational therapists, behavior specialists, school counselors, and nurses in support of children. The SLP students get to see that each profession has something vital to offer children with complex needs. We hope the students leave the camp with a deep respect for each profession and seek to be a strong member of a team in their career.

How do you make sure these students get the most out of their experience?

AS: Our clinical supervisors provide written or verbal feedback to students each day individually or in a group, as well as a more formal mid-term and final review.

What aspect of your research, including what you do outside of Camp Yakety Yak, are you most proud of and why?

AD: As a clinician of 22+ years and clinical researcher who has partnered with the autistic community for over a decade and a half, I have experienced quite an evolution in my journey related to disability. My current work reflects a neurodiversity perspective of autism, but it has not always done so. I was not always familiar with this viewpoint, nor the broader social model of disability. I feel proud that I have grown (and continue to grow) in my understanding of disability and how I can best partner and ally with the autistic community, both as a researcher and clinician. I think this is a viewpoint that is still somewhat new and unfamiliar to many clinicians and I would encourage more programs to introduce a broader perspective to their students. Clinicians will encounter community members representing a variety of viewpoints and, as clinicians, we must be prepared to be responsive to this spectrum. I encourage students, professionals, and educators to read the scholarly works and personal accounts of autistic individuals to inform their understanding of autism and their clinical practice. And, I encourage researchers to investigate the use of community-based participatory research, regardless of the populations with whom they partner.

What is your advice for SLP students looking to work with children with communication disorders?

AS: Get as much experience as you can with as diverse of children, clients and patients while you are in school and do not wait for education to be brought to you, but be bold and vulnerable to ask questions to further your learning.

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