Here's what it's like to take an autistic child to summer camp

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You found a camp that you thought would be perfect for him. You hoped it would be perfect for him. After all, it's a subject he loves. After all, HE could be running the camp.

So you took a deep breath and signed him up. You filled out all the paper work. Under the medical information section you wrote high-functioning autism and ADHD. You even listed his medications even though he wouldn't be taking any of them at camp. You wrote it on the calendar, and it sat there like a ticking time bomb weighing heavily on your mind, on your heart.

Camp week arrived, and you spent the night before preparing your child. This is what time we're getting up, this is what time we're leaving. The camp is three days long. Here is what the camp is about. Here is how you appropriately get attention. Here is how you contribute information. Remember how we socialize with other campers? Stay on the conversation web. Here is what time Mom will be back to get you. 

He doesn't sleep at all that night. He is nervous, anxious, excited. He spends the entire night awake thinking, going over situations in his mind. He is exhausted in the morning, and you are nervous for him.

When you drop him off you linger to see what he will do, but he disappears into the classroom without saying good-bye. You go home and wait nervously, hoping - praying - that he has a good day. That the camp counselors don't ignore him. That he doesn't wander off. That the other kids are nice to him - or at least not mean anyway.

When you arrive to pick him up, he is sitting under a table reading a book. He sees you and runs to you shouting, "Finally! Get me out of this train wreck!"

You weakly smile at the counselors and other parents as you and your child walk away. That was rude, you mutter through clenched teeth at your son. He explains to you that the kids were being really loud and wild while waiting to be picked up, and then you understand the comment and his placement under the table.

The next morning when you drop him off, the camp director knows who you are right away. This makes you nervous. Did your child stand out that much yesterday? And so you worry all day.

When you come back, the director says Oh, Mrs. Frog. Your child certainly knows a lot about our subject! You tense. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? He has such enthusiasm. He is just a joy to be around. You exhale and smile. It was a much better day.

So the third day, you hardly worry at all until you come back to pick him up and he is under the table again, this time crying. And this time you are facing the camp director with a different look on her face.

Your child has punched someone in the shoulder. You are appalled and upset. You just want to get him out of there, but he won't come out from under the table. The camp director explains that the other boy said something about your child's mother, and secretly you're proud of your son for standing up for himself - and you!

You know that a detailed discussion is going to upset him more, so you ask him if he knows he made a poor choice. He weepily says yes, and you say Okay then, let's move on. 

The camp director says it's no big deal, but you can't help feeling like you sense relief when you answer her that no, your child isn't coming back to camp next week.

Just like in camps past, you're not sure he got anything out of it. Did he even have a good time? Was it even worth it? You want him to have experiences like other kids do, but is it worth it to worry all day and put him through the anxiety and stress of the situation with counselors who don't know him and don't know how to make him feel comfortable?

But then finally his week comes. The week you've both been waiting for all summer long. HIS camp. A camp just for him and kids like him. The only camp you've signed him up for that he has actually been telling people about.

A camp for kids with autism.

You walk in the first day and the director is there to greet him. She doesn't attempt to touch him or shake his hand but has a huge warm smile for both of you. He blurts out a question, which she patiently answers. Then she tells him about the schedule for the whole day. It includes things like yoga break, fine motor time, and executive functioning skills and warmth spills over your mama heart. Your son says Okay, cool, and starts exploring the room and picking things up off the floor.

He likes to do that, you say. And the director smiles and says Of course, we'll talk about that, too. 

You see other counselors showing other campers quiet places they can go if they need to, and you walk back to your car knowing THIS WILL BE a good day.

*          *          *

Every summer, for years, I have struggled over what activities to place my child in for his break from school. I know that it's important he have "regular experiences," but also that handling some of those regular experiences is difficult for him. Even though I hate to use labels, there are times his label has helped him and his camp counselors have a more positive experience. 

Read my latest on She Knows about how his label has saved some of his summer camp experiences, as well as a review of The A Word, a new show about autism premiering this month on the Sundance channel. 

Leave me a comment below about how you handle summer activities with your autistic child or connect with me on Facebook. 

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