Summer Camp Cliffhanger, Pt. 4: Maybe Different Won’t Mean Worse
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Summer Camp Cliffhanger, Pt. 4: Maybe Different Won’t Mean Worse

Less than one week of school remains for my kids, and that means that sleepaway camp for my son Ben, who has autism, is right around the corner. And up until a few weeks ago, I was dreading it more than looking forward to it, which might seem strange given the post I recently wrote about how much I and caregivers like me need a break sometimes.

But in this blog, in Summer Camp Cliffhanger Parts 1 and 2, I also described my concerns about our camp’s decision to transition from a self-contained program just for kids like Ben to one that folds him and his friends into their general camp population. (In Part 3, a proponent of that decision described how it might work.)

My worries deepened as summer approached. Of course, humans in general don’t like change. In our particular case, Ben’s autism diagnosis invariably exacerbates this common tendency in me, in my husband, and in Ben.

It seemed as thought everything we loved about Ben’s camp, Round Lake, would be changing, and that different would mean worse. There would be more kids. “Normal” kids. What if they teased Ben? Or intimidated him so much that he didn’t want to fully engage in the activities? How will Ben have the same positive experience when everything about camp will be changing?

My husband and I made it a point not to discuss our concerns with Ben. While we have certainly invited him to share his feelings and thoughts about the changes, we did not want cause any concerns if he didn’t have them. Ben suffers from severe anxiety and we have learned that he doesn’t need any help coming up with worries or concerns. And he was nervous about being at a different location and whether the rules would be the same.

Then, last month, in one of the smartest decisions ever, Round Lake invited its families to an open house of the new site. For any camper, taking a tour of camp and having questions answered ahead of the first day helps quell jitters. For kids on the spectrum, many of whom struggle mightily with change and transitions of any sort, taking a tour of camp can truly mean the difference between success and failure. Taking into account the particular needs of our kiddos is, of course, what drew families with kids on the spectrum to Round Lake in the first place.

So he and I headed up to Milford, Pennsylvania a few weeks ago to get the lay of the land. None of Ben’s buddies were going to be there. Which only made him more nervous. But within moments of our arrival, that no longer mattered; Ben was no longer by my side but talking with some other kid. A girl. A girl. If nothing else was accomplished by this trek to the Poconos, I got to watch my son with Asperger’s doing one of the most normal things in the world: hanging out with a peer. He was engaged in a two-way conversation for nearly an hour. With someone his own age! This was a change … a very happy one.

Seeing the physical space did allay Ben’s concerns. He came away from the experience better able to visualize himself at camp, and said he doesn’t feel as nervous anymore.

The tour addressed most of my concerns as well. But I still had a few nagging qualms and sent off an email to the camp director, Lisa Tobin. Lisa spent nearly half an hour going through my questions (and follow-up questions). Her willingness to hear my fears and acknowledge them has done much to assuage them.

Ben will not have the same positive experience that he had last year because things are going to be pretty different. But I see the potential for an equally positive experience.

And, really, what more could I want for him?

Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr is a CLAL Rabbis Without Borders Fellow whose work appears regularly on the Rabbis Without Borders blog and Kveller.com as well as a variety of other online sites. Writing at This Messy Life (www.rebeccaeinsteinschorr.com), Rebecca finds meaning in the sacred and not-yet-sacred intersections of daily life. Follow her on Twitter @rebeccaschorr

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