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Scouting with Asperger’s: One Family’s Story

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by Amelia Ramstead
Autism Asperger’s Digest
| March/April 2012

Six boys stand proudly before their friends and family in clean, pressed uniforms.  Shirts are tucked in, neckerchiefs are straight, and posture is perfect.  They have just crossed the bridge and transformed from Webelos to Boy Scouts and received the trappings of their troop.  Although outwardly the boys appear similar, one is quite different from the rest.  Elias, my son, has Asperger’s Syndrome (AS).

Why Scouts?
Elias received his diagnosis in summer 2008.  I didn’t know much about AS, and I had a lot of questions.  I wondered if Elias would ever be able to do “normal” activities with other boys his age—or if he would even want to.  We felt lost and frightened.

It was my father, himself an Eagle Scout, who first brought up the idea of Scouting.  He told Elias all about it: camping, merit badges, and swimming. Elias was intrigued and wanted to try it; however, we wondered if it would be appropriate.  Elias had never gotten along well with other kids his age and had a hard time handling frustration.  What would happen if he had a full-blown meltdown in the middle of a pack meeting?

Elias continued to ask about it, so we decided we could at least try it out.  We would make sure Elias knew that there would be no obligation, and if he didn’t like it, he could stop at any time.  With that agreement I contacted the local Boy Scouts chapter to find out about groups in our area.

To Tell or Not to Tell?
It’s the question that plagues every family of a child with a special need that isn’t immediately apparent.  Should we tell the leaders about Elias’s diagnosis of AS?  Or should we wait and see?  After all he could do just fine, and maybe no one would need to know.

After the first couple of meetings—Elias sat quietly in the corner picking at his fingers or roaming around the cafeteria where the meetings were held, seemingly disinterested in what was going on around him—we started to wonder if we had made the right decision.  He did not speak to the other boys; in fact he did not seem to be aware of their presence.  He did, however, cling to his den leader like a life preserver.

Finally Blair Renshaw, Elias’s den leader, approached us.  He was concerned about how introverted and shy Elias seemed and wondered what he could do to help.  We decided that the time had come and told Blair what was going on.

“I was not familiar with AS before meeting Elias,” Blair said.  “To be honest, I had never heard of it.”  We talked about what might be expected with Elias and some ways he could be drawn out of his shell.  Elias is fascinated by all things scientific, and getting him to talk about topics such as geology or electricity can turn him into quite the chatterbox.

“When Elias first joined the Cub Scout pack, it was extremely difficult to get him to participate in any of the activities with the other boys,” Blair remembered.  “He was extremely clingy—he would stick to me like glue.  And he absolutely would not participate in any of the skits.”

We asked Elias several times if he wanted to quit, but he kept insisting that he was having fun and didn’t want to stop.  As he got to know the other boys better and started earning badges and advancements, we started noticing significant changes.

How Has Elias Grown?
Elias became eager to work on advancements outside the meetings, especially those that involved science.  He was more forthcoming at meetings, raising his hand when he knew the answer to questions.  When the pack was on the last push to earn the final achievements before crossing over, Elias led the charge and was the first to earn the right to cross.  While the road wasn’t perfectly smooth, and tears occasionally fell, when we brought up the idea of quitting, Elias begged to stay.

“I’ve noticed huge growth in Elias since joining Scouting,” said Blair.  “He will join in and participate readily with the other boys. He doesn’t cling to me anymore. The one event that really sticks in my mind was when he came up to me and asked me if he could lead the flag ceremony. He even participated in the skit at the Blue and Gold Banquet (the party to celebrate the boys’ advancement to Boy Scouts) and did a great job!”

Since becoming a full-fledged Boy Scout, Elias has continued to grow and mature.  He can often be found in a leadership role, he volunteers for cooking duty on campouts, and he can put up his own tent.  Although he still has some struggles at home and school, when he puts on the uniform, he becomes someone else—self-sufficient and confident.

What does Elias have to say about Scouting?  Elias was quick to point out that when he is in Scouting, the other boys approach him to talk about things he is interested in, and he gets along well with them.  Although he had trouble articulating the concept, it was clear that he felt the other Scouts had respect for him.  His goal is to eventually make it to Eagle Scout.  The best part of Scouting, for Elias, is camping and other outdoor activities.  He also mentioned that although sometimes the requirements seem hard at first, they usually aren’t too difficult and he always learns something from them.

What Makes Scouting Appropriate for Children with AS?
Carrie Sheppard, MEd, a licensed mental health counselor who has spent the last 15 years treating children on the spectrum, believes that Scouting is a good match for many kids on the spectrum—boys and girls alike.  She mentioned that many parents of spectrum children don’t typically consider activities like Scouting for their kids, but she believes that it provides structured, guided learning; growth; and social opportunities that aren’t available anywhere else.

Carrie identified some of the key features of Scouting that make the activity so ideal for kids with AS:

  • Predictable structure helps kids with anxieties while still challenging them.
  • There’s a minimization of social ambiguities, with a focus on competency.
  • Scouting provides a way to channel energy and attention appropriately, which is helpful for kids who have trouble self-regulating.
  • Personal success and self-confidence can be developed in meaningful ways.
  • Merit badges provide a visual reminder of success and help build self-confidence.

Carrie said, “I find that the structure of earning badges and ranks can be motivating for children. Scouting can also offer opportunities for challenges they may not otherwise participate in such as hiking, camping, climbing, and learning to be skillful in nature. This builds confidence and mastery outside the realm of the school and home environments, so that the child can develop unique talents, skills, and knowledge.”

She also pointed out that for children on the spectrum, outdoor time can be especially useful for promoting healthy brain development and connectivity.   “Most Scouting groups focus on outdoor time, physical activity, and using mind and body together,” Carrie pointed out, “which is usually in alignment with the parents’ and therapists’ goals to expand the child’s ability to think more flexibly and be able to manage challenges in life using their ‘whole brain.’”  Additionally, as Elias likes to point out, no matter what you’re interested in, chances are there’s a merit badge for it!

Is Scouting Right for Your Child?
The number one factor in whether Scouting will be a suitable activity for your child is, of course, your child.  If the interest isn’t there, don’t push it. If the interest is there, and your child wants to explore Scouting, contact your local Scouting office to find out about the availability of packs or troops in the area.  You can find information for your area by going to the website www.scouting.org or www.girlscouts.org.  Sea Scouts (www.seascout.org) are another possibility if your child is passionate about the ocean.

After you’ve located your nearest troops, interview the leaders.  Find out about the program—what they have going on, previous trips they’ve taken, what they expect from the kids.  Ask if they’ve ever had a child with AS in their troop and how they reacted.  Flexibility and understanding on the part of the leaders is crucial.  Elias has never had a meltdown at a Scouting event, but if he did I have full confidence in the abilities of the leaders to handle it appropriately.

If your child ever feels it’s time to stop, honor those wishes.  Be supportive and encouraging. Be involved with the program while still allowing your child to explore Scouting and everything it has to offer.  Both you and your child might surprise yourselves at what can be accomplished!

Amelia Ramstead is a freelance writer, wife, and full-time mother of two living inRenton,Washington.  She eagerly awaits her son’s Eagle Scout ceremony.


Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2012. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print means prohibited without written permission of publisher.

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