Since Connor was little, he has always attended some kind of day camp during the summer time. Since we both work, this is necessity as much as a recreational opportunity. But camp has always been something I dreaded each year.
A couple of years ago, he was kicked out of the YMCA summer camp. Although it was promoted as “inclusive,” I was often met at the door with exasperation and complaints about Connor’s behavior. I supplied staff with handouts, explanations, behavior support tools, and a busy box. I had lengthy explanations on how to use positive behavior supports to motivate behavior change. But I was told they didn’t have the staff to provide that much support, and they just couldn’t deal with his challenges.
We found a camp through a local recreation center that was specifically created for children with disabilities. For the last two years, Connor has attended camp there, and has done well. The staff are trained to support children on the spectrum, and their ratios allow them more hands-on, individualized support.
But this summer I blew it. I knew they started reserving spots for camp in March, but I was slow to get it together and sign him up. By the time I called they were completely full, except for three weeks. I took those three spots, and reluctantly signed him up to attend the rest of the summer at the school district summer camp. They no longer used the YMCA, and instead they created and staffed their own district day camp. Still, I was bracing for another summer of hell.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The lead staff already knew Connor from the after-school program. She greeted me the first morning with a smile, and an assurance that he’d be just fine. I handed her a racquetball and told her that he would work for having time to play with it. We talked a little bit about incentives and reminders, and I told her that each week he works to earn a new toy or Skylander figure, for having good behavior.
I have been greeted with a smile every single afternoon. The first week, which is always a challenge because of the new routine, I would be greeted with positive information first. Then they would tell me what kinds of challenges there were, during what activities, and then their plan for supporting and changing the behavior.
Do you guys understand how major that is? They would identify a problem, brainstorm a plan for addressing it, and greet me with a summary and their solution. These are people that, to my knowledge, don’t have specific, intense training on autism or other disabilities. They are using a common sense approach, an approach that is positive and respectful, and they are doing it willingly and happily because, as she said to me, “it’s our job to make camp enjoyable for everyone.”
It’s not an exaggeration when I say that I very nearly cried the first day I picked him up. I’ve dreaded pick-up for the last 5 years because it is almost always a negative experience. How pathetic and sad is it that a mother would dread the thought of picking up her child, because she knew she would hear a litany of complaints about her son’s behavior? And how demoralizing must that be to Connor, to always be talked about in a negative way?
It’s not just the camp director that is making a difference. The other day when I picked up Connor, I was handed a note. The front was Connor’s writing, telling about what a great day he had. On the inside one of the staff wrote his own note, to tell me how they are working together on Connor controlling his body (you all know that this is code for respecting other people’s bodies and space), and that he’s doing a great job. The staff came up with this idea on his own. This tiny, little activity is HUGE. It’s huge because it helps Connor practice his writing and fine motor skills, it helps him to reflect on his day and his choices, and it reinforces the desire to want to have good things to write in his note to me.
THIS IS WHAT INCLUSION IS SUPPOSED TO LOOK LIKE.
Instead of having Connor secluded in a special group, all with disabilities, he is in a group with typical and non-typical peers. It’s like I finally found the Holy Grail of programs. They get it. They WANT to help Connor shape positive behavior. They WANT to problem-solve. They willingly make little changes and tweaks, here and there, because the little changes make a big difference in how the day goes.
More than that, they genuinely like my boy. Rather than seeing him as a child that deliberately makes bad choices, they see him as a boy with a disability who doesn’t always have the skills or tools to make better choices. And they seem sincerely happy to see him each day, and give him hugs and high-fives.
I won’t be spending the summer so stressed out that I’m awakened by frequent nightmares, nor crying over the chunks of hair I’m losing. Instead, I get to spend the summer thinking of ways I can thank the staff for their kindness and professionalism, and ways I can duplicate the program so that this kind of acceptance and inclusion becomes the norm, rather than the exception.
As a start, I will ask you to share this post – not because I care about stats, but because I want as many people as possible to read about and see that it IS possible to run an inclusive program. I don’t want other parents to go through what we went through, ever summer, worrying and counting the days until school started. It’s not supposed to be that way.