Masks come off at Byron Bay

Rachel Rowe’s idea is a winner. She set out to find a place where autism families could escape and be themselves. No masks needed, no one to judge.

When she couldn’t find anywhere to go, she created a place. She started Autism Camp Australia (ACA) last year and families are flocking in.

Rachel picked a beautiful location for her first camp in January this year. it was held at Byron Bay on the New South Wales coast, near where she lives in the Byron Bay hinterland. Then Covid-19 arrived and three camps scheduled for autumn were postponed, soon followed by the postponement of the three winter camps.

“We made the call probably a little bit earlier than others because some autistic young people have co-morbidities that make them more vulnerable to Covid-19, and we wanted our families to be safe.” But camps reopen in September, with five planned before Christmas and most are already sold out. 

While families wait for a camp booking, they can keep connected with each other and in touch with ACA through Autism Camp TV, which has been providing fun ideas and support sessions during lockdown. “Everybody has had to adapt to survive.”

Rachel, Chief Executive of ACA, says the idea came out of her family’s need for a respite-based holiday. She wanted a place where her nine-year-old daughter could be with other autistic young people, enjoy tailor-made programmes to build her capacity in communication, social interaction and sensory and emotional regulation, among a range of skills, and be looked after by carers with lived experience of autism. It needed to also be a place where her allistic (non-autistic) sister, aged five, would feel special and supported as a sibling, and where their parents could get a break, educational support, and some self-care and meet other parents of autistic young people.

“A big part of life for autistic people is masking, and masking has an incredibly exhausting mental load,” Rachel says. The camps are a place where autistic people don’t have to mask or camouflage behaviour that can be seen by allistics as socially unacceptable in order to fit in.

To check that she was on track with what other families wanted, Rachel sent out a questionnaire across Australia and had more than 800 replies – most with a resounding yes please. “The response has been huge,” she says. 

“I formed my Board in the middle of last year and we launched in November.” With the first camp opening in January it was a fast trajectory. “Well I am autistic, which means I go at about a gazillion miles an hour,”  Rachel says.

The camp – over five days and four nights – runs three programmes, one for autistic young people aged seven to 14 years, one for siblings and one for parents/carers. Activities are a mixture of resilience building and fun for all three groups. They include proprioceptive sensory activities to reduce anxiety, social skills support, art therapy, equine-assisted learning, water sports, beach games, campfire and damper making, orienteering, bike riding and a ropes course.

Workshops for parents/carers include family narratives and navigating relationships with children’s schools,  and self-care yoga, meditation and workout sessions. 

The plan is to hold 12 camps a year, each taking up to 10 families, or 40–50 people. It will take more than a pandemic to dampen Rachel’s vision. She is planning to open a second location on the Sunshine Coast in December and hopes to have a total of six locations around Australia, with 700 Australian families enjoying camps by 2023. She is also considering locations overseas, including New Zealand.


This story was published in Community Moves. The magazine is posted free to all IHC members.

Read the full issue of Community Moves.