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When school is out, a Pinellas camp for autistic kids offers a much-needed service

Volunteer Dawn Culpepper twirls Aurie Solomon, 6, of St. Petersburg, at the Pinellas Autism Project's camp during Thanksgiving week. The nonprofit group holds social events and camps during school breaks for high-functioning children with autism, a much-needed service in Pinellas County. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
Volunteer Dawn Culpepper twirls Aurie Solomon, 6, of St. Petersburg, at the Pinellas Autism Project's camp during Thanksgiving week. The nonprofit group holds social events and camps during school breaks for high-functioning children with autism, a much-needed service in Pinellas County. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Nov. 23, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — Matt Wiseman's cellphone rings at least once a week, usually after 9 p.m., with a call from a desperate parent.

The voice on the line is tired, defeated. Once again, their child was excluded from an after-school program or summer camp because of another extraordinary meltdown, a reality for a kid with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Wiseman's been on the receiving end of those meltdowns, many by his own son, Ben, who was diagnosed with autism three years ago. The bites, scratches and bruises on his arms and legs are from kids who need a different environment.

Families have flocked to Wiseman and what he's created: the Pinellas Autism Project, a nonprofit group that holds social events and camps during school breaks for high-functioning children with autism. Just like any other camp, the children go on field trips, have playground time, a video game tournament, yoga, art, a Disney movie after lunch — all under the watchful eyes of trained behavior analysts and volunteers, including some who have autism themselves.

"I'm doing this because I want Ben to grow up and have a world and a relationship and a job," said Wiseman, 49. "That's only going to work if he's in the right environment."

Wiseman launched the Pinellas Autism Project, formerly known as the South Pinellas Autism Project, in April 2016. He was inspired by the stories out of his son's school, North Shore Elementary in St. Petersburg, which has four ASD classrooms.

Since Wiseman sold his publishing company in 2013, he's been working full time on the project, a registered nonprofit. He is the project's executive director, though he says he's been paid just $5,000.

During Thanksgiving week, the program is charging $100 for three days of camp, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., at the former campus of Windsor Preparatory Academy, a shuttered charter school in St. Petersburg. The camp also will operate during winter break on all days except Christmas and New Year's Day for a weekly charge of $150.

During summer break, the camp will cost $130 a week.

Most of the money goes toward the YMCA, which also runs a kids care program at the campus. That organization carries all the licensing and insurance needed to run a camp.

Wiseman hopes to change that. He says he's working toward certification as a child care center director and is looking for 5,000 square feet of available space with a play area.

His goal is to create an after-school program for kids with autism and, in the same building, rent space to independent behavior therapists, occupational therapists and psychologists to relieve family members of their stress — a one-stop center for families with autistic children.

Based on census and other data, Wiseman estimates Pinellas County is home to about 2,600 kids with autism.

For now, he advertises his camps through Facebook, email and word of mouth, particularly at North Shore Elementary. They register up to 40 kids, around ages 6 to 13, in the summer weeks.

Dawn Culpepper has been taking her son Hunter, 11, to Wiseman's camps since he started them last year. She also volunteers there.

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"My son didn't want to do anything with anybody else," said Culpepper, 45. "Ever since he got involved with the kids here, he's like an outburst. Like wow, my kid's social."

In addition to the camps, she said, the autism project creates a network for parents to take turns watching each other's children and host sleepovers.

On his Monday off during Thanksgiving break, Jonathan Rivera, 8, took turns running around on the playground and playing with Monster, a 3-month-old Maltese/Shih Tzu mix and therapy dog in training.

"It's like a vacation," he said.

Robert Hasbrouck, a board-certified behavior analyst who runs the Excellerated Teaching Center, is on the board of the autism project and keeps a watchful eye over the staffers who work at the camp. He says he's seen an increase in socialization among the children who attend.

"Just the opportunity for a kid to have a sleepover is a huge thing," Hasbrouck said. "It gives parents a trusted location for kids."

He added: "We want kids to have that normal sense of camps, and that normal sense of break."

Contact Colleen Wright at cwright@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.

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