34: Always Learning

34: Always Learning

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Raising Kids on the Spectrum

Always Learning

Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow.

~Albert Einstein

My daughter turned seven the year her special education teacher suggested the park district’s summer camp as an extension of her social skills training. An inclusive day camp to be held at her school, the program offered therapeutic aides for campers who needed them. Rebecca would be attending “extended school year” in the morning, so lunch and camp would round out her afternoon. I continued to think through the possibilities: new counselors and helpers, meeting new kids, and staying at her school. If there’s one thing I do know about Rebecca’s autism, it’s the kind that doesn’t like change. School was familiar ground; this would be a new, fun framework. Not lost on me either was camp’s two-week time frame, which meant built-in respite for me.

I sent an application to the camp’s therapeutic aide director. As a follow-up, he came to the school to observe Rebecca to see if she was a candidate. At day’s end, he said yes. I then received word that he would have an aide for her. There was a meet-and-greet night at which Rebecca “interviewed” her new helper by making her play “Follow the Leader” and sing various songs. Senior therapeutic recreation major. Past camp counselor. The young woman even wanted to design objectives for Rebecca at camp and observe her in her school time. It all sounded wonderful. And, on paper, it was.

First day of camp, I got a call from an on-site camp director that Rebecca had hurt another camper and was in violation of camp policy. I immediately drove to the school, arrived at the room in which they were keeping Rebecca and found her aide in a completely exasperated and defeated state, while another camp director spoke of kicking, hitting and generally reckless behavior. I was expecting a rough first day — because even with the safeguards, it was still new — but nothing like what I was hearing.

Any attempts to do camp activities were met with resistance by Rebecca. The aide’s interventions didn’t work. Another camp aide, who also worked as an aide at the school, called Rebecca’s special education teacher at home for advice. Later that night, the therapeutic aide director left a phone message suggesting that maybe camp wasn’t the best fit for Rebecca. But he added: “By the way, tomorrow’s field trip day. Can you please go to make sure everything goes okay?”

The field trip was bowling. Had Rebecca ever been bowling? No. Would she walk into the bowling alley? It depended on the day. Before camp week, I had hoped this would be the opportunity to introduce Rebecca to an activity that we could then do as a family. Now I was worried and drove behind the camp bus all the way to the bowling alley to spy on my own kid. Rebecca never fussed, resisted or misbehaved. Peering from the café area about twenty lanes away, I could see that she was having the time of her life — bowling with help, and cheering on her teammates with high-fives! We were all smiles leaving the bowling alley.

After the trip, though, things went downhill. The staff asked me to pick her up at 3 p.m. instead of 5 p.m. “It seems like she’s had enough of everything,” they said.

Then, I was the one who resisted. One of the reasons for having Rebecca in camp was to push her limit of doing organized activity beyond the end-of-school-day hour. “It’s only the second day! Can we please keep trying?” I thought. Then, Wednesday ended up being worse than Tuesday. Thursday would be the last day of camp that week, with one more week to go.

I decided — after hours of internal debate — to walk away. Not run, just walk. Lots of people had made an investment in the week. Running away wouldn’t be right. Rebecca finished out the camp week, with a visit to the ice cream truck, no less. She had had a pretty good last day, all things considered. But, the fast uphill learning curve for the camp staff, the anxiety, the lack of basic happiness on everyone’s faces, even Rebecca’s . . . we were losing more than we were gaining, and it was time to walk away.

What I know about my girl and autism continues to change. So, I read a little more, talk with the experts a little more, pray a little more, and study up on ways to improve my approach. We’ll give it time and try again.

~Sue Jeantheau

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