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Outdoors WCU students help children with autism enjoy fly fishing

Alex Bell, former Smoky Mountain High principal and now owner of a fly fishing guide service, works on casting with Isaac Ralston, 10. All the young anglers caught fish on Cullowhee Creek, freshly stocked by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission.WCU recreational therapy students help children with autism experience the fun of fly fishing

One clear, cool afternoon in mid-November, on the banks of Cullowhee Creek on the Western Carolina University campus, a small-scale fishing derby was under way.

Three boys, working with WCU recreational therapy students Shawn Chapman and Megan Hunt, took turns fly fishing for trout in the creek’s quick, shallow waters across from the Ramsey Regional Activity Center. From the grassy banks, the boys’ moms, dads, siblings and friends offered encouragement.

“Oh, I hope they catch one,” said an anxious Dana Frady, mother to Dillon, 12, one of the fishermen and a sixthgrader at Cullowhee Valley School.

“That one’s going to get bit there, get ready,” said Alex Bell, a professional fishing guide from Sylva who offered humor and encouragement with each cast. The fish that wiggled free he termed LDRs – “long-distance releases.”

Many boys welcome a chance to fish, but for these three – Austin Coburn, 14, an eighth-grader at the HUB School of Alternatives; Isaac Ralston, 10, a fourth-grader at Cullowhee Valley School; and Frady – the opportunity was especially sweet. All three boys are on the autism spectrum, and recreational activities specifically adapted to their abilities are few. Austin, son of Jane and Andy Coburn, associate director of WCU’s Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, was so excited he’d had difficulty concentrating at school that day.

Autism affects the normal development of the brain in the areas of social interaction, communication skills and cognitive function, according to the National Autism Association. Individuals with autism can show marked differences – thus, they are on the “autism spectrum” – but typically they have difficulties in verbal and nonverbal communication, social interactions and leisure or play activities. The NAA reports that the disorder affects one in 150 people in the U.S. and is diagnosed four times more often in boys than girls.

Chapman and Hunt organized the fly fishing event as a project for a methods class taught by Jennifer Hinton, WCU associate professor of recreational therapy. Bell, retired principal of Smoky Mountain High School (also a graduate of WCU’s educational administration graduate program) and the owner of AB’s Fly Fishing Guide Service, served as Chapman and Hunt’s “coach” on the project, working with them throughout the semester. Through the Adaptive Fly Fishing Institute, Bell teaches adaptive fly fishing and also teaches fellow instructors in the practice. There is limited research on adaptive fly fishing, Hinton said, but the WCU students theorized it would benefit children on the autism spectrum physically, psychologically and socially.

The fly fishing was adapted to the children’s abilities. For instance, when teaching the children to cast, the instructors asked them to aim for hula hoops on the ground rather than asking them to reference numbers on an imaginary clock face. “It was amazing the difference once we put down a visual cue. It improved their focus so much,” Bell said. Chapman or Hunt stood with each boy as he fished and helped with the casting motion.

In honor of the event, staff of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission stocked that section of Cullowhee Creek with about 40 brook trout from the Bobby N. Setzer State Fish Hatchery in Brevard. “We’re here to provide angling opportunities for various people, and we were proud to step up and make that happen,” said David Deaton, a WRC fish production supervisor. Accessible hunting, fishing, boating and other wildlife-related activities for all N.C. residents is the agency’s primary goal, Deaton said. The boys and their families were thrilled with the results, with each child catching at least one fish.

Isaac regularly participates in two activities on the WCU campus specifically for children on the autism spectrum. One is a social skills group for adolescents that is a collaborative effort of WCU speech-language pathology and recreational therapy faculty and students. That group, started by speech-language pathologist and WCU clinical faculty member Julie Ogletree, typically attracts about six children ages 9 to 15, is free and meets on campus once a week. Hinton, who helps run this group, envisions it moving to a clinical space when the WCU College of Health and Human Sciences moves to its new building across Highway 107, scheduled for occupation in fall 2012.

For more information about WCU’s program in recreational therapy, contact Hinton at (828)227-2715 or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


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