Manhattan camp uses magic to help kids with special needs

Magician Kevin Spencer with girl with special needs
Courtesy: Kevin Spencer

MANHATTAN (KSNT) – A Manhattan summer camp is partnering with Kansas State University to study a new method of engaging kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD, and other special needs.

The Flint Hills Summer Fun Camp is using a method called Hocus Focus.

Hocus Focus creator and magician Kevin Spencer said the method uses magic tricks to help kids with special needs develop the skills they find challenging.

Spencer said he developed a passion for children with disabilities, and the idea for Hocus Focus, after he taught magic tricks to a little boy with autism.

Spencer said, “He kind of leaned way in and pulled back. And I started into the next one and he goes, ‘teach me the rope trick.’ So I gave him a piece of rope and showed him what to do with his hands, and he did the trick. And he was so excited that he did the trick, he said, ‘teach me another one.’”

When he was done, he said, “His father stood up and gave me just a really big hug. And he said, ‘That’s the first time in nine years I’ve ever heard my son speak.’”

It was at that moment, Spencer said, that he realized what he used to entertain people could help people in more ways. And Hocus Focus was born.

Spencer said Hocus Focus can help kids develop essential skills.

He said, “Magic doesn’t work unless it’s social. You want to show it to somebody. And so that’s the main element that we’re working with here at the camp is helping them develop their social skills, their communication skills, their organizational skills. And magic is just a really cool way to make that happen.”

Spencer partnered with the Flint Hills Summer Fun Camp and Kansas State University to research his method.

He said, “Research is a critical component of what it is that we do. Sometimes we want to fall back on the anecdotal evidence; we want to go to the touchy feely stuff. […] We can look at a child and we can see the improvements in their relationships with other children and their coordination and their motor skills and even their cognitive development. But if you can’t put that down empirically and statistically, then it’s going to be very difficult to move this project forward in a scientific way. So that’s what this research project is all about.”

Kansas State University professor Sally Bailey said the focus of their research is on how Hocus Focus impacts children’s executive function.

She defines executive function as “the ability of the frontal lobes of the brain to focus, pay attention, and problem solve.” She said, “It’s all of those thinking skills, those cognitive skills, that you need to have to be able to focus in school and to be able to make connections between things.”

Bailey said the camp is made up of approximately one third typically-developing children, one third children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and one third children with ADHD. Researchers plan to compare kids’ executive function before and after the camp to see whether there is a change.

She said she believes there will be a difference.

“I think the best way to teach anybody is through play and through fun, no matter who you are,” said Bailey. “It’s just so much more enjoyable to learn. And it motivates you to learn even more. I think the magic has really captured the kids’ attention so that they can really focus and enjoy themselves focusing and I think they’ll be able to transfer those skills into other areas of their lives.”

Eventually armed with data supporting the effectiveness of his method, Spencer hopes to implement Hocus Focus into classrooms across the U.S. to help more children with special needs.

Click here for more information about Hocus Focus.

Click here to visit the Flint Hills Summer Fun Camp Facebook page.




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