Joel Yanofsky is a writer and author of “Bad Animals: A Father’s Accidental Education in Autism.”
The letter my son, Jonah, sent us from sleep-away camp last summer was pretty much what you’d expect from any kid getting used to his first few days and nights away from home. He told us about passing his swimming test and about the trouble he got into when he didn’t pay attention. He also complained about some of the meals. “The food here is good but it’s not great. Please take me to East Side Mario’s when I get back because I don’t like the pasta here,” he wrote. “I had the salad instead.”
Of course, I recognize that this letter, including the fact that it has been proudly displayed on our refrigerator since August, couldn’t be more of a cliché. But then, my wife, Cynthia, and I live for clichés. We cherish the mundane, the average, the ordinary, all the things other parents take for granted. That’s because our son, who is 14 now, has autism.
He was diagnosed when he was almost four, labeled high-functioning. Over the last decade, we’ve learned to accept some of his differences and appreciate others. It’s what we have come to call The New Normal. Still, sometimes, it’s The Plain Old Normal we crave: like Jonah learning to swing on monkey bars a few years ago or celebrating his bar mitzvah last year.
The decision to send him to sleep-away camp for a week was a big step in The Plain Old Normal’s direction. Cynthia argued for it; I had my doubts. In part, because I never went to camp myself. My parents moved out of the city to the suburbs when I was five and they were convinced I was as close to nature there as I needed to be. Mostly, though, I was concerned that sleep-away camp was an environment where Jonah would not fit in, one that would spotlight his difficulties with being independent and making friends.
Fortunately, Cynthia, a camper all through her youth, won the argument. She saw Jonah’s week at Camp B’nai Brith, located in Lantier, Quebec, an hour north of Montreal, as an ordinary rite of passage. And while we did make some special accommodations with the cooperation of Camp B’nai Brith – like having a shadow accompany Jonah or having him stay for only a week – Jonah was, in the end, just another kid in a bunk full of kids missing home and having fun. He participated in the same things the other kids did – from Shabbat dinner to getting up, for a second or two, on water skis. He also turned out to be a popular bunkmate, celebrated for his skill at making fun of his counselors. If it took him a while to adjust to the food, that was, we realized, to be expected. If he now insists on going back to Camp B’nai Brith for two weeks this summer, well, that’s what I’d call perfectly normal.