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Aspen camp helps autistic children find outlet with skiing

Katie Redding
kredding@aspentimes.com
Aspen, CO Colorado
Katie Redding/The Aspen TimesSki instructor Doug Gilstrap, left, helps Robert Doss learn to ski at the Extreme Sports Camp of Aspen. Gilstrap uses tethers to teach Robert to ski through physical, rather than verbal, communication.
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SNOWMASS, Colorado ” It’s late afternoon at Snowmass ski resort, and 13-year-old Robert Doss lies in the snow, screaming.

But 20 minutes later, he exits the Elk Camp Gondola and flies down the intermediate slopes. He skis so fast, it’s hard to believe it’s only his sixth day of skiing ever ” or that he’s autistic.

“He’s still upset,” said his father, Lem Doss. “But he loves to ski.”



Throughout his run, Doug Gilstrap, Robert’s instructor, uses a tether to guide Robert non-verbally through his turns.

“What I’m trying to do is communicate with his body, his feet, because verbal communication is hard,” Gilstrap said. “With conventional conversation or teaching methods, the message is not conveyed to the student.”



In fact, much of how Gilstrap teaches skiing to children with autism flies in the face of conventional ski school wisdom. He never starts, for example, with learning control.

“With a child with high energy, you’ll lose them and they’ll be unmotivated,” he explained.

Instead, Gilstrap begins by letting students ski down the slopes as he holds on to them, to immediately give them the stimulus of flying down the ski hill.



Roberts is the co-founder of Extreme Sports Camp of Aspen, which has taught sports like rock climbing and mountain biking to children with autism since 2001. This year, it added ski lessons to its offerings.

Gilstrap, along with Diane Osaki, a board member and autism consultant, recently developed a ski program for children with autism. In December they trained a number of volunteers, called Buddies, as one-on-one coaches, and filled five sessions of ski camp with students.

Like the camp’s summer programs, the ski camps are designed to give kids with autism a challenge, a chance to be successful, and some exercise. One parent told Gilstrap that his 11-year-old had slept through the night after camp ” for the first time in his entire life.

Gilstrap said that most of his students are in search of visual and physical stimulus.

Give Robert a National Geographic magazine, he said, and he’ll flip through a magazine fast, smell the pages, feel them, or wiggle the photos to animate the pictures. So Gilstrap has figured out how to use the sensation of skiing ” not the promise of being able to ski someday ” as the motivation.

Later, using physical and visual cues, he shows his students how to turn and stop, and eventually weans them off his support.

“[Robert] is a very visual kid,” explained his father. “That’s probably what’s overwhelmed his auditory processing. … You couldn’t have an in-depth conversation with [him].”

And that’s why skiing is such a good sport for him, Gilstrap explained.

“None of these kids are good at team sports,” Gilstrap said. “But that doesn’t mean they’re not athletic. … Once you learn the tools and techniques, you can really, really get some results that aren’t expected.”

Back at The Sweet Life ice cream shop at the end of the day, for ice cream and cake, Robert tried to run away a few times. Fellow student Will (whose mother asked that his last name not be used, as they have hope that he will grow out of his diagnosis) stood in the corner, rubbing his head against the wall. Another student cheerfully yelled out dinosaur questions in the middle of the conversation.

“Does T. rex laugh?” he wondered aloud.

But back on the ski hill the next day, Gilstrap decided Robert could ski on his own, and released him from the tethers early in the morning. He skied beautifully, by himself, all day, according to his coach.

“You might not be able to talk as well as everyone else,” said Sallie Bernard, the other co-founder of Extreme Sports Camp of Aspen, “but you can get out and enjoy these activities.”

kredding@aspentimes.com


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