Film Camp for Autistic Children Premieres at SMC

Joey Travolta and his campers.
Autistic children who struggle to communicate are learning to express themselves through the language of film at a groundbreaking camp taking place at Saint Mary's College of California.

Under the direction of filmmaker Joey Travolta, 35 children ranging from 8 to 19 are creating a takeoff on the television show "American Bandstand," complete with music videos and commercials. The two-week camp is sponsored by the Saint Mary's School of Education.

Problems with social interaction and a lack of interest in sports often isolate autistic children. Making movies clicks with them because it gives them a voice and the support they need to express themselves, according to Travolta.

"It takes a very family-like atmosphere to make a film," Travolta said. There's a lot of collaboration. It's an empowering thing for these children."

Parent Karra Barber said the Joey Travolta Short Film Camp has been a "magical" experience for the children, helping them to forge social connections.

"They're all talking about film," said Barber. "They have a common interest and they're excited about it."

Barber's 13-year-old son Thomas, who suffers from a mild variant of autism called Asperger's syndrome, enjoys writing scripts and wanted to attend a film camp. When she couldn't find a camp in the East Bay, Barber contacted Travolta, who runs film programs for children and adults with developmental disabilities. He told her he would direct the camp if she would organize it.

"Joey used to be a special education teacher so he knows how to keep it structured and interesting," said Barber.

When it came time to finding a location, Barber said she thought Saint Mary's would understand the need for the camp so she called David Krapf, director of the special education program in the School of Education.

"I think this is a great service to these children," said Krapf. "They're learning how to work together and it could create career opportunities for them to pursue in the future."

As an inclusion program, the campers include 25 children with autism and 10 who don't have a disability but do have an interest in drama. That's the case for 11-year-old Kelly Condon and his sister, 9-year-old Madison.

"I really like it," said Kelly. "I'm learning how to do stuff like how to act properly."

The camp is also helping his sister feel more confident.

""I like to act a lot and to be in front of people on a stage, but sometimes I get very shy," said Madison. "I think it's an awesome thing they're doing here."

The camp is supported by Full Circle of Choices and Renaissance Club Sport. Campers and crew will reunite on Sept. 22 at Saint Mary's College for a combination film premiere and red carpet awards ceremony.

Travolta, who is working with an 11-member film crew, encourages the children to write their own spots and then helps them develop dialogue. He said his role as a director is to make actors comfortable and, in the case of the children, keep them engaged.

"I get more out of it than they do," Travolta said of the camp.

By Debra Holtz, Office of College Communications