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Scouting for All: Adapting Programs for Children with Autism

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Scouting for All

Adapting Programs for Children with Autism

By Becky Kaufman MSW, LCSW

Autism Asperger’s Digest | July/August 2010

In many ways, being a boy scout is a childhood rite of passage. Millions of adults look back and fondly remember the uniform they once wore, the pinewood derby car they built with their parents, or their sense of belonging to a special group. At our therapeutic day school, the same experience is now being enjoyed by children significantly impacted by ASDs. As a school we are learning how a shared group experience can create a collaborative community between students, staff, and families.

In Spring 2007, the Des Plaines Valley Council of the Boy Scouts of America approached me and asked if our therapeutic day school would be interested in Scouting. I was initially hesitant because I did not have any personal experience with Scouting, but as I thought about the idea it became more and more apparent that this was an exciting opportunity. I started to think about how we could make Scouting accessible to the children with autism at our school. I realize that many children with autism participate in their local packs and troops. For some, Scouting is a way to build relationships and skills with neurotypical peers. Others are able to participate in special needs troops in their local communities. However, the students at my school have behavioral, sensory, social and/or communication challenges that severely limit their ability to be included in community groups. For our children with autism, the available resources from the Boy Scouts were not enough to support a successful experience.

Making Adaptations

We needed a version of the Tiger Cub program that every child at our school could participate in regardless of their challenges. We needed a Tiger Cub manual that would make parents feel excited about the activities they could do with their child, rather than feel discouraged because many ideas in the existing manual were not realistic for their child. We needed a program that would fit the unique set-up of our school, where students in participating classrooms ranged in age from 6-11. After identifying these needs, we decided to revise the traditional Tiger Cub program, keeping the essence of Scouting, but modifying pieces of the program to make them appropriate for our students. We looked at every activity in the Scouting manual, decided which ones were feasible for our students, and then made any necessary adaptations. Then we created our own activities to meet the sensory and communication needs of our students. The result was a comprehensive Tiger Cub program and curriculum designed uniquely for students with ASD.

We were careful to maintain as many of the traditional elements of the program as possible. Our students wear their uniform – an orange Tiger Cub t-shirt – each week on Tiger Cub day. When they come to the den meeting, they put on their Tiger Cub hat.  Students also earn beads each month at the pack meeting, just like traditional Tiger Cubs do. The structure and routines of den and pack meetings stayed the same, but the activities were adapted. Weekly activities were enhanced to incorporate movement, sensory experiences, and the communication adjustments needed to make students successful in the social setting of Scouting.

One of the most significant adaptations we made was creating a Tiger Cub handbook specifically for our families and students. The handbooks include monthly descriptions of how students earn beads (i.e. what they will do with their den, what they need to do with their families at home, what outing they will take with their class, and extra activities they can do with their families) and a page that allows students to visually track how many beads they will receive each month. The handbook also includes a detailed description of the program, and social stories for students about being a Scout and wearing a uniform.

Tiger Cub Sessions

The typical Scouting curriculum is based on a regular weekly structure, something that benefits our students as well. Although our routines might look a little different, they provide the same consistency and predictability. Each student is assigned a “den.” This is a small group of 3-7 students the child meets with weekly for Tiger Cub class. Groups are arranged so students work with peers of similar abilities. We check their manual each week and award a Velcro circle for any activities completed at home or in the classroom. They can trade the circles in at the end of the month when it is time to earn their beads. The last part of our “check in” time involves saying “roar” when the leader calls a student’s name. This is a favorite activity. Some students “roar” verbally while others use a one touch switch. Either way the reaction from the leader engages the roaring students.

Each month we pick a dance or song to learn together. The songs always involve some kind of gross motor movement that’s easily adapted for students with different motor planning and imitation abilities. Some of our favorites are “If You’re a Tiger and You Know It” (a modified version of “If You’re Happy and You Know It”) and “The Monkey Song” by the Wiggles. After our song we have a flag ceremony. Each week a different student is selected to bring in the large American flag and we stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.

The main activity of the week takes place during “Discover Time.” If the theme is healthy living, we might go on a scavenger hunt looking for healthy food or do relay races putting color-coded food pictures on a large food pyramid. If we are doing the traditional Scouting map activity, we might identify rooms by color (to work on receptive identification/expressive labeling) or answer WH questions (like “Who is in OT?”). Activities usually rotate weekly between scavenger hunts, obstacle courses, gross motor games, crafts and table activities.

At the end of a session we play games and/or have a time for sharing. Both provide great social opportunities. Whether it is a group of students taking turns on a trampoline, completing three-legged races, throwing water balloons, playing Duck, Duck, Goose, or participating in show-and-tell – the focus is always on creating a socially engaging environment where students experience successful interaction.

When it is time to go (as reflected by a daily visual schedule), all of the staff and students put their hands together in a team hand stack to say the Tiger Cub motto: “Do your best!” This small moment of unity is the highlight for many staff and students.

Pack Meetings

Just like traditional Scouting, each month all of our small group dens get together for a pack meeting where we celebrate our achievements. For our school, this looks like a typical school assembly that parents are invited to attend. Small adaptations are made to ensure student success, such as assigned seating, modified seating (chairs with arms or wiggle seats), visual schedules, and music to lend background structure to the event. Each month a different den is featured. They perform a skit (complete with costumes and props) and present the flag in the flag ceremony. The pack meeting ends with a bead ceremony during which paraprofessionals or family members give each student color-coded beads for the activities they completed.

Intervention on Many Levels

Our Tiger Cub program has improved students’ skills, but we’ve experienced many other exciting outcomes. One of the most powerful results is the sense of community created by the program. As an autism professional, I constantly feel the need for – and the sometimes difficult challenge of creating – a partnership between home, school and outside therapists. The Tiger Cubs program helps fill the gap. It creates a meaningful, shared experience and reinvigorates collaboration among us all.

Parents are welcomed into our school once a month, not for an IEP or behavior conference, but to celebrate the joys of a childhood program. Staff and families engage in a setting that feels more like a community than a conference room. Everyone laughs together during the skit and feels pride during the bead ceremony’s “I did it” song. In our highly measured world of autism progress, it is difficult to quantify the effects of shared group experience. However, we have repeatedly witnessed that any intervention that draws together home and school in a collaborative way positively affects all aspects of a child’s treatment.

In addition to eliciting increased parent involvement with our school community, parents also report a positive effect on their families at home. Several families have told me that their child’s brothers and sisters were involved in Scouting and it was significant that their child with autism could participate too. One mom said, “My son’s older brother is a Cub Scout and having Scouts in common is GREAT for their relationship. I never thought my son would be able to do this! I love the way this enables special needs kids to belong to something that before was only for the ‘regular’ kids.”

Each month our families have a simple assignment to complete in order for their child to earn their white family bead. These include things like playing a game together, having a picnic, playing in the snow together, or looking at family photographs. One parent said “My son enjoyed many of the home activities, especially the ones in which the whole family participated. (The program) was a helpful boost for us to actually do some things we sometimes don’t get around to doing.”

Tiger Cubs Changed our School Community

Looking back on the past two years of implementing this program, I love to see the impact it has had on our students, staff, classroom communities, and school community. Now every Friday (Tiger Cub day) almost all of our staff and students wear their orange Tiger Cub t-shirts. This sea of orange t-shirts communicates to everyone “We are not just going through our day as usual; today is a special day.” For some of our students, the uniform has increased their social awareness and connection with the program. One student points to his peers wearing the same shirt saying “Tiger Cubs” in his emerging voice. The parent of another mostly non-verbal student reported that some mornings the student will say “roar” when he sees his t-shirt.

The paraprofessionals who bring students to Tiger Cubs have also become highly engaged in the program. They are the masterminds behind creative costumes and skit ideas. Their motivation and desire to create opportunities for their students to shine continues to grow as our skits get better and better. This part of the program has challenged me to consider how to facilitate better engagement among all our staff.

When the Boy Scouts first approached me, I couldn’t have imagined our Tiger Cub program would turn out as successfully as it did. I expected it to provide many of the benefits of Scouting to our students. What I had not predicted was the extent to which a school-based intervention could create a community, increase parent involvement, engage paraprofessionals and staff, and reinforce the importance of celebrating success.


Becky Kaufman MSW, LCSW is a social worker at Giant Steps in Lisle, IL. For more information about Tiger Cubs: An Adaption Created for Students at Every Level on the Autism Spectrum.


Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2010. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print means prohibited without written permission of publisher.



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