Summer is definitely in full swing at my house. We’re staying busy, rushing from tennis lessons to swim lessons to educational camps.
With a child on the autism spectrum, I’ve learned that schedules and order are a must for us in the summer. If I don’t have the day’s schedule written on the white board in the kitchen, he plans the day down to the minute. Hey, at least he’s keeping me honest.
The other thing I’ve been honest about this summer is his autism diagnosis. There was a time before we knew he was on the spectrum that most summer activities were hard. Don’t get me wrong, they’re still hard; but they used to be really hard.
Since my boys are all so close in age, I would sign them all up for the same camps and lessons. With the three oldest participating in the same activities, the difference between my typical two and my other son was obvious. Many a camp counselor or tennis instructor would get angry at his behavior, which included wandering around, blurting out during instruction, or finding his own zone somewhere off in a corner away from the activity. Swim lessons were a disaster, with my son getting virtually ignored as he splashed on the steps of the pool. And I would feel dagger eyes judging me as an incompetent parent.
When my son was six, he and his brothers were taking golf lessons. All he wanted to do was swing the club and stand by the instructor trying to tell her facts about sharks. In the middle of the lesson she marched up to where I was sitting and demanded, “What’s the matter with him? Does he have autism or something?” I was taken aback, upset at her words and tone, but also because I didn’t have an answer for her.
But now I do.
Yes, he has autism; and it’s one of the first things I mention when signing him up for summer activities.
Now, instead of treating him as if he’s simply “naughty,” I can give the instructors some pointers on what to say or do when they need to turn his attention back to the group. I can provide them with clues as to why he may or may not be engaging in certain activities. And I can give them a little time to prepare for his presence, too.
I’ve seen a big difference in how he gets treated and what he is getting out of his summer camps now. Instructors ask me to elaborate on what they can do or say, and on what strategies have worked for us. They handle his “misbehavior” as what it is: something he can’t always control. They indulge his need for adult talk time. Sometimes, they make him a special helper.
More often than not, they see him how every other adult sees him: as a delightfully interesting kid who happens to have ASD.
At the end of the first week of tennis lessons this summer, I asked the instructor how my son was getting along.
“The other instructor and I talked strategy and set up some visual cues to help him know where to stand,” he replied.
I walked away smiling. Smiling, instead of feeling hopeless and hurt and like a failing parent. They were working with him and understanding him.
Unfortunately, these days almost everyone knows a child on the autism spectrum; but fortunately, there is a greater understanding of how to work with these children. With that greater understanding comes something else that our ASD children need: practice and experience effectively using their skills in regular social situations.
Wouldn’t it be great if we treated all children like that, whether they have a label or not?
The other day, a little boy in the tennis group before ours was having a very hard time. He had forgotten his racket and was refusing to take the one being offered to him by the instructor. I could see the look of panic on the boy’s face, the anxiety growing as the instructor threatened to call his mother.
It made me sad and a little mad because I could see an easy way around the conflict. But not everyone who works with children can. They just see naughtiness and stubbornness.
And those are the wrong labels for any child.
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