“Mom, there’s a boy with autism at camp with me.”
Omar, my oldest son, who is not autistic, said this to me as we drove home from camp one day, over the summer. My youngest son, Lucas, has autism, and is 4 years old. Regular summer camp was not a suitable option for him, due to his intensive therapy routine. Also, it was due to my inability to feel safe with that option. Lucas needs one on one supervision constantly, for his safety, and also for the safety of others around him.
I know our therapy schedule is intense, but I am giving him the best chance, right? At least, that’s what I’ve researched, been told by professionals, and tell myself daily. I love my son, for who he is. But, when you get so lost in almost everything being therapy, you sometimes lose sight of other things. What is he missing out on instead?
It’s a fine line to walk.
But, back to my older son’s statement.
“There’s a boy with autism at camp with me.”
My older son was not going to a special needs camp. His words lingered in my head and in a pit in my stomach. Up until that point, I suppose I had ruled out Lucas ever attending a “regular“ camp, with kids without diagnoses.
I had assumed that the autism in him would make it too difficult, that he’d be too different.
He would have to be separate to be safe.
That sounds terrible, typing it, but it’s honest. I don’t want to take any chances with my son escaping or being somewhere that the people responsible for him don’t understand him, or know how to help him. So, I ruled out a typical camp for him. This was certainly the case for this summer. Had I even ruled it out for all years to come? Was I pigeonholing my son and putting limits on his potential? Shame on me.
This pushed me to face what I think my biggest fear has always been.
It’s not that my son won’t be capable of relationship and enjoyment with others, but that others won’t be capable of having, or possess the desire to have it with him.
Omar’s statement opened up the door to so many questions. I needed to know. How did things work out for child with autism at camp? Was it obvious that he struggled and was different from the other kids? Did he have triggers and meltdowns? Did other kids understand him? Did they try to? What did the teachers do if he had a meltdown? What did the other kids do? Did he participate in the camp activities? Did he ever run away?
And, I suppose the most important in my heart was, did he have friends?
Throughout the summer, Omar continued to answer my questions. He told me all about how the boy at camp sometimes wanted things exactly his way. This could be as simple as him getting very upset when someone casually grabbed “his” crayon, which he had carefully chosen. He sometimes yelled “NO!!” or hit another kid in close proximity, when he was upset about someone doing something he didn’t want. He’d frequently bump into people trying to get to what he wanted, or take it out of someone’s hand if they were already holding it. He’d also repeat things he liked, over and over, like climbing the ladder in the playground.
There were times where the boy at camp didn’t acknowledge social rules like waiting online, and he’d simply run to the front of the line to get on the slide. Then, he’d stay there, not letting other kids on after him. He needed extra supervision, so he wouldn’t run off into parts of the camp that weren’t in use during that particular activity. Many of the actions by the boy at camp are very familiar to me, with Lucas.
I proceeded to ask my son how HE treated this boy at camp.
Omar told me that he was not intimidated by the boy’s differences, by his behaviors, and by his outbursts, though they were sometimes frustrating. My son, after all, was quite accustomed to these sorts of needs at home with his brother Lucas. Omar described their interactions, and gave me examples of how he showed empathy, treating the boy at camp with respect for his individual needs and personality. Omar also mentioned thinking that the boy might be autistic, before the boy’s sister had even told him.
I asked how others treated this boy at camp.
I listened desperately to his answers.
Omar went on to tell me that many of the kids didn’t understand the boy. Some kids yelled at the boy with autism, telling him to stop doing the things they didn’t feel were appropriate. “Wait at the back of the line,” they’d yell, when he cut. Other kids let him go in front of the line. Some kids made fun of him.
But, a few, including my son, were kind to him.
They saw him as a peer, a person, a friend.
I saw a glimpse into Lucas’ future in this boy at camp. There is still a long way to go regarding acceptance, awareness, and inclusion of children and adults who are differently abled in our society. We have come a long way, but there is still a ways to go. And, it is the job of adults to educate themselves, be the example, live these things out, and teach the next generation acceptance and love.
You see, I worry often, that people who Lucas hopes will like him would be mean, insensitive, make fun of, and exclude him.
One beautiful revelation in all this, is that I realized I am raising a son with the awareness I hope others will have. Omar is willing to include and love others with and without obvious differences, even when I am not present to prompt him in that. I am proud that Omar was so insightful, and thoughtful. I am proud that he realized when the child’s “odd” behavior was not really rude or ‘disobedient.’ My son showed him grace and compassion. He didn’t view the child as unimportant or inferior.
As I heard all this, I was filled with hope. I was filled with the hope that there will be an “Omar” for my Lucas, whenever he does have the chance to venture out into a more inclusive atmosphere.
May there always be an “Omar” in his classroom, an “Omar” at his camp, and wherever he may go, to love him the way he is, accept him, and guide him.
The boy at my son’s camp with autism gifted me with hope. He gave me hope, that autism is not necessarily going to limit my son in the ways I had foreseen. And, his mom gave me hope, that this journey is not as restricting as I had feared.
Although I’ll always be concerned about both my boys’ futures, I got a beautiful reminder in this experience.
Out there, outside of the circle of protection I keep Lucas in, the community is sprinkled with people who are brothers and sisters, friends, teachers, and family of someone with autism.
Those are the people I hope will stick up for him, get him, and help others get him, when I am not there.
Those are the people who give me faith that a world with inclusion can exist.