Jan 21, 2013 3 Share

Social Life

Illustration of teenagers hanging out, seen from waist down.

Sometimes you just have to admit that a great idea isn’t all that great when it’s implemented. If you’ve read any of my previous columns, you’ve probably come to certain conclusions about my son, Cameron. I’m sure he would seem to be what most would label as “high functioning.” Cameron is very capable when it comes to independent living skills and he is fully embracing his own growing independence. From what I can gather, this somewhat sets him apart from his peers at his nonpublic special needs school. With the exception of a few foundation years, Cameron has always gone to a specialized school. As such, I’ve recently been yearning for him to have access to more mainstream settings when it comes to socialization. After all, in “real life” Cameron will be required to interact with the mainstream society, so it makes sense to me that he has social exposure to his mainstream peers now.

With this mainstream social integration in mind, I’ve begun a search for summer camps and extracurricular activities for Cameron. Every time I mention summer camp to a parent of a child with disabilities, I get a ton of recommendations for “special” camps. But that’s not what I’m after. I want Cameron to find out what it’s like to stand shoulder to shoulder with typical teenagers. I thought I had found the perfect solution for an extracurricular activity: my daughter’s school offers a fencing class for boys and girls in Grades 4-12. It’s a girls’ school, so I even had visions of Cameron flirting with an upper school opponent. Cameron attended the first lesson this week. The class consisted of Cameron, his sister, and two of his sister’s fourth grade classmates. Not exactly the peers I had in mind for Cameron. But he hung in for the entire lesson, and said he would go back if he weren’t the only adult in the class. (I checked, and there were four no-shows on the first day. All were female, and the oldest registered participant was a sophomore. Which would be great, if she shows up.)

The inquiry into summer camps didn’t go much better. I am not expecting Cameron to receive special treatment in his camping endeavors. I only want to ensure that the organizers would be sympathetic to Cameron’s … umm … let’s say “quirkiness.” I found a program that looked interesting and put a call in to the director. I was shocked by how quickly I was shut down and told they would not be willing to accept Cameron. The director told me (in a rather patronizing tone) that it would be nice if they could put together a group of disabled campers, but they weren’t prepared to do that. He missed my point entirely, and clearly had a preconceived notion of Cameron that was far from who he is. I felt the hairs on my neck start to prick up, and my pulse quickened as I was trying to have a conversation with this camp director. Words like “discrimination” came to mind, along with a few others that aren’t fit for print.

Both of these disappointing attempts at mainstream social integration happened on the same day. It would be easy to just throw in the towel and give up. But I’m not going to do that. I’m convinced that I can find appropriate activities for Cameron that he will enjoy and that others will enjoy his participation as well. Any ideas?

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Don't mention autism until you have sized programs up

(I haven't read any of your other materials, so I don't have a solid idea of whether or not my idea would be right for you, but here's a shot in the dark.)Do you know any moms who send their NT children to summer camps? If you haven't tried asking them [much], try it [more]!Try not mentioning your son's disability until you get plenty of information about a program. Probe for general policies and feelings about inclusion of everyone in attendance--and perhaps assert that information when you do tell the staff your son is on the spectrum.Your previous approach seems to be one that weeds out the less knowledgeable and sensitive of summer camp directors. This one will not have the same strong advantage, but at least it will yield a greater quantity of opportunities.


Summer Camps

What about the local YMCA - the one in my city has had programs with inclusion with appropriate staff to support students who enroll.  Good luck to you - I hope he has a great experience.


absolutely don't give up

Sounds like the camp director had HUB disease - head -up-butt!  We have found open-minded camps and organizations that commit to taking campers of almost every stripe, and tailoring (as best they can be made to understand) the program/support to the specific needs/strengths of the participant.   YMCA? JCC? other religious-affiliated places? - albeit you might not want too much of their religion to overlay the activities.  At least they have an overt mission to love and accept others.   Hope you find the right situation.