SPRING HILL — The savory smell of homemade pizza greeted 14 children as they ran pell-mell into the classroom.
All but one of the students sat down at the table, opening lunch boxes expectantly. The other camper, a pale girl in a pleated blue skirt, hung back, silently turning a football over in her hands.
Amanda DePace is 10. She doesn't speak.
"Sometimes, if you listen closely, she might say very lightly, 'Quiet, quiet,' " said Margarita Garlin, an employee at the University of Florida Center for Autism and Related Disabilities who helps with Camp Hope. "Every autistic child communicates in their own way."
DePace is one of 15 kids attending Camp Hope, a weeklong day camp for children with autism developed and run by the YMCA of the Suncoast. This is the camp's inaugural year.
Counselors say Camp Hope provides one-on-one attention that kids can't get at larger camps. Here, six assistants work with 15 kids.
"Autistic children don't usually go to camp at all," said Teresa Romulus, a YMCA project management director. "They don't always feel comfortable in a cafeteria with 200 other children."
For example, the campers spent Monday at Sand Hill Scout Reservation, but moved to Central High School because the Boy Scouts at Sand Hill proved too distracting, Romulus said.
The severity of autism covers a wide spectrum, but the disorder generally affects normal brain development of communication and social skills. Boys are three to four times more likely to have it.
Romulus spent the better part of a half-hour coaxing 5-year-old Jacob Kingsbury to eat chips, applesauce and a crustless PB&J sandwich.
"Tickle!" Kingsbury shrieked, smiling with Dorito-orange lips. Romulus's fingers danced up his arm and into his blond hair.
"Finish your chip first."
That one-on-one attention is what parents appreciate about Camp Hope, Romulus said.
She said parents asked the YMCA to offer an autism-friendly camp after the Hernando County Parks and Recreation department began offering a similar program.
Theresa Symonds of Weeki Wachee, who's 17-year-old son has autism, said Camp Hope's intimacy and emphasis on improved communication and socialization makes parents more comfortable about sending their kids to camp.
For the kids, Camp Hope is a chance to interact with others who have similar experiences.
"It's easier to be with other autistic kids because they understand what you're going through," said Devin Lambke of Spring Hill, a 14-year-old with autism at the camp. "I don't know what it's like to have their autism, but we can kind of relate."
Symonds is not the only adult helping at Camp Hope who has a child with autism. Garlin's 18-year-old son, who also has autism, didn't speak until age 10.
She said that first-hand knowledge will help her work closely with DePace until the week ends.
"By Friday, we'll be best buddies," Garlin said. "You can't get that many places."
Laura J. Nelson can be reached at [email protected] or at (352) 848-1342.