Our Boy Scout Troop recently returned from their annual weeklong campout. Things did not go well.
A couple of years ago Lawboy and a friend’s son who also has autism (we’ll call him Goodfriend) went to the backwoods program offered by our council. They get along well and balance each other out. Knowing they would be separate from the Troop, I talked to the leader in charge ahead of time about our boys and their needs. We also provided contact numbers and emails so we could be reached as well as a lockbox with their medications. The backwoods leader had worked with youth for a number of years and had exposure with ranges of autism. There was one day Goodfriend got really frustrated and he was pacing in the woods breaking sticks. The Leader called my friend to confirm how to proceed. She told him to let Goodfriend work it out with what’s he was already doing, and he (Goodfriend) would rejoin the group when he was ready. It was the only time she needed to be contacted. Lawboy and Goodfriend had a really great experience and earned tons of merit badges.
Since that time, Goodfriend has gone on to earn his Eagle Scout award. He did a conservation project and Lawboy is looking to do something similar. I had the privilege on sitting in on Goodfriend’s Eagle Board. His different way of thinking was evident, but in no way any hinderance. He told us how he believed it was possible to be a leader even without being in an official leadership position. You can lead through your actions and influence. You can be kind and use good language. The people who know and respect Goodfriend have cleaned up their language around him because he keeps up his standards. He is kind.
This doesn’t mean he doesn’t get frustrated. He does. But Goodfriend is overwhelmingly positive and he generally gets along with everyone. He has learned through the years to walk away from stressful situations and re-engage when he is calm. He uses stress balls or will break sticks to work out his excess energy/frustration. He’s a good kid (and a big kid who enjoys football) with a big heart.
This account has been put together from my conversations with multiple people who were there, saw what happened, knew the people involved and their amount of training.
This year Goodfriend didn’t need to go to scout camp, but he really enjoys the outdoors and wanted to go back to the backwoods program again.
Unbeknownst to all of us the leadership had changed.
This new leader has little to none experience dealing with kids in the autism spectrum.
It was a very small group of boys, but that didn’t stop problems from occurring. One of the boys there dared Goodfriend to pick up a hot coal–which he did. No punishment was given out to that boy. But because Goodfriend is big and loud and had an inability to completely express himself verbally when he is highly frustrated, he was misunderstood as being dangerous and a threat. Instead of contacting Goodfriend’s mother for any advice (despite the fact he was given every form of contact information possible for her), he opted to call the big whigs and label Goodfriend as a threat. This could’ve been prevented if he had listened to Goodfriend before his frustration grew, if he had called or texted his mother for advice. It could have been prevented if the leader had received autism training and had any idea of how to read the signs or what to do to head off a meltdown or been taught ideas on how to deal with a meltdown.
Goodfriend ended up being moved back to the regular camp, but the problems didn’t end there. The camp counselors and leaders had all labeled Goodfriend as a potential threat and were watching him like a hawk and were all-over him for everything. He was getting increasingly frustrated because he wasn’t being left alone to disengage, calm down and then re-engage. He played a game and was tripped (accidentally). He perceived it as intentional and tripped the kid in return. (His wrong–we all acknowledge that). He also yelled something in exasperation, but doesn’t recall actually yelling. He was asked to leave the game. He started to do so, but then was called back to talk to one of the counselors. He complied. (Even though he really wanted to just go back to camp). The counselor talked at him and didn’t want to listen to anything Goodfriend wanted to say. (The counselor did not see the initially tripping, only Goodfriend’s reaction to the tripping). At one point he there was picked up a stick to break in frustration. He was told to put down the stick–which he did. He picked a rock to squeeze, and was told to put that down. He did. Then he picked up some blades of grass to shred and was told to put them down at which point he asked in frustration, “what do you think I’m going to do with a blade of grass?”
He was compliant to each counselor request. His frustration was evident and misinterpreted as a bad and aggressive attitude. Our troop leaders were called in. They tried to talk to him for over half an hour. Our Troop Leader can usually talk Goodfriend down, but had no luck. Goodfriend expressed frustration no one would listen to him like our Troop leader, but eventually asked Troop Leader and Assistant Troop Leader to just leave him alone. He took a nap and was fine by all accounts afterwards.
During Goodfriend’s nap, before he had calmed down, his mother was called. She was understandably upset she hadn’t been called sooner before things had escalated your either the original backwoods leader or our Troop leaders. She expressed she felt everyone, including troop leaders, were not interested in keeping Goodfriend there. She decided to come get him. There was additional miscommunication about the time of her arrival, and when she got there Goodfriend (who had completed his nap and woke up happy) was surprised to see his mother at camp. He hadn’t been informed he was leaving. (The Troop leaders tell me they thought they had a few more hours and didn’t want to upset him too early).
I’ve heard multiple sides of the story and I think our Troop and council can benefit from guidelines and training. Guidelines which could be tailored to a specific boy could help keep communication open because a “one-size fits all” solution would not work. Every child on the Autism Spectrum is unique with his or her own difficulties. He or she will react differently to situations and stimuli. Some children may need weight/compression/firm hugs, while in a different child, that would make the situation worse. (It would make Whirlwind more upset to be hugged or restricted in any way).
I’ve been thinking of how we might improve things. By no means have I come up with anything comprehensive, but possible questions to ask parents of special needs kids before camp:
When your child becomes frustrated, what is the best way to diffuse his frustration before it reaches critical status?
Do you prefer your child change locations (under two-deep leadership guidelines) to a quieter area (away from stimuli or other Scouters)?
Will the presence of other youth mitigate or exacerbate things? (I know one child who would escalate things to get a bigger reaction from everyone–he does better when there is no “audience”. I know another child who worries about being embarrassed and if he feels embarrassed, it is even harder to get him to re-engage).
If your child reaches meltdown phase, what is the best immediate course of action?
This is going to take time and work, but I really hope if we work with everyone, we can prepare them to handle situations better and to not be so quick to label an autistic youth as a troublemaker.
One can dream.