Difference is part of life. This is true for everyone, but particularly the case when disability is part of our lives, whether our children have a disability, or we have disabilities ourselves. As parents of children with disabilities, it’s irrelevant whether our experience more closely resembles the classic 1987 description entitled Welcome to Holland, which describes life as though everyone around you landed in your planned destination of Venice, while you landed in Holland. A more contemporary description, which compares life to speeding through a hilly town with busy streets, in a car without functioning brakes vs. another experience entirely. Regardless, our lives are different from most of the community. The weird looks, lack of understanding, and the reality that the lives of our so-called peers seem foreign to our reality, are each completely exhausting.
For children with disabilities, their experience as “different” may seem equally, if not more, frustrating during the school year. The special classes, taking tests physically separated from other students, and often with separate instructions than their “typical” classmates, getting individualized help or other accommodations often further reinforces that they’re different. Regardless of how helpful or even necessary these accommodations are for academic success, they can still reinforce negative social stigmas. It’s no wonder then that both children with disabilities and their parents feel overwhelmed. Any opportunity to escape this reality and experience how “others” live. To fit in and belong, even if it’s only for a few weeks, sounds spectacular to parents and children alike. Thus, summer camp, a predominantly controlled environment, not governed by the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, which legally require the disclosure of disabilities, seems like the perfect opportunity to be discrete and seem “normal.”
On the surface, nondisclosure of nonvisible disabilities seems like a perfect solution. If your child can pass as “normal”, they should be treated normally. Consequently, fit in and therefore, avoid the stigma of difference. The problem is that disabilities don’t disappear. Disabilities, even those most often associated directly with learning, don’t only affect people while they’re in school. Even when settings change or labels are hidden, disabilities always remain.
I understand this as a parent, a former camper with a disability, a staff member on a summer program, where there were campers whose disabilities were disclosed before camp, and campers whose parents chose not to disclose their child’s disability. However, if you don’t want to take my word for it, here is something to think about. According to the American with Disabilities Act a “disability is an impairment or impairments that substantially limits one or more major life activity.” It continues by making clear that a disability exists even if a person “is only perceived by others as having such an impairment.” Major life activities aren’t confined to a singular setting. Furthermore, people’s perceptions are not determined by disclosure of official medical diagnoses, but rather their day-to-day interaction with an individual. The difficulties associated with disability, with or without disclosure, are always present. Just as important, if not more so, we cannot give our children their best chance for success without providing them access to all of the beneficial support available, something that is impossible without disclosure. In short, we need to take the stigma out of disclosure and put success into it.
More years ago than I care to admit, I was a camper at the JCC Camps at Medford in Medford, NJ. I recall having so many wonderful times, but none was as wonderful as the summer of 2014. As a Division Head, I was able to observe at a distance, my then 4 year old daughter enjoying the time of her young life. By the end of the summer, when every child in her bunk was hugged, and tears dried, she said she was ready for the next important time of her life – being 5.
I’ve spent 20 years as a Special Education teacher, and now, for the summer of 2015 I will have the privilege of serving as our camp’s Director of Open Hearts Open Doors, our inclusion program for children with special needs. I couldn’t be more excited!
Open Hearts/Open Doors provides the accommodations necessary for children with disabilities to be fully integrated in the Camp program with their peers. With the one-on-one attention of an advocate, each child is able to flourish and fully enjoy their camp experience. Additionally, Open Hearts Open Doors makes an incredible impact on our typically functioning campers who have the opportunity to learn acceptance and about diversity while make life long friends.
Last summer I observed many moments in the everyday lives of our very special children. I say special because each and every camper, with or without an IEP, comes with their own unique needs and abilities. At camp, those needs are met seamlessly, and differences are celebrated! I observed caring counselors and advocates working as a team to guide their charges from apprehension to joy. I observed children with varying physical, emotional and academic abilities performing on the camp stage together to the rousing applause of fellow campers, staff and parents. Stars were born and magic was made.
My goal for 2015 is to help our very special campers achieve what every child should have in the summer – joy. While I love the motto hanging on the wall behind the reception desk of the JCC, Where people with special needs don’t feel special, I do want our campers to feel special. I want them to feel special in the way all children feel special: when they get a base hit, learn to swim, create a work of art, master karate moves, or perform in a play that everyone loved. The focus is on inclusion, which not only benefits the child with special needs, but also their peers, counselors, and the camp Kehillah (community) as a whole.
Originally posted on eJewishPhilanthropy.com
There’s no denying the rich, joyous, and stimulating experience of Jewish summer camp; research proves it contributes to Jewish identity, strengthens the Jewish community and fosters Jewish leadership.
At Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC), we believe camp must also reflect the diversity of today’s Jewish community and be accessible for everyone.
Jewish camps should strive to create an environment which fosters growth for its campers and college aged counselors. Everyone benefits from an inclusive camp community, which has a culture that embraces and recognizes diversity.
We encourage camp environments where each camper, regardless of whether or not they have a disability, is given what they need to succeed at camp, in an environment in which everyone can learn from each other. Camp offers a place where every child has the opportunity to learn how to live in a diverse community, how to face and overcome challenges, and how to accept that being different is okay. An inclusive camp environment gives everyone the opportunity to be curious, to ask questions, and to learn how to be flexible and tolerant. These skills help build a stronger future Jewish community.
Part of what makes camp so unique is how integrated it is into nature and the ruach that comes along with it. The unpaved greenery, the steps up to the bunks, the hills that lead to the dining hall, the loud cheering after Shabbat dinner on Friday night. But what about the camper with cerebral palsy who can’t walk herself up that hill to the dining hall? Or the boy who covers his ears during song session because he has autism and the loud cheering is overwhelming? For the 15-20% of kids with a disability, whether that is cognitive, emotional, physical, intellectual or sensory, camp can present many obstacles. We feel an obligation to increase the availability of camp options for them.
After our study conducted in 2012-13 found that children with disabilities are significantly underserved by Jewish camp, FJC issued a vision statement for a major disabilities initiative. The overarching goal is to ensure that campers with disabilities and their families experience camp as fully and completely as their typical peers. In 2014, we began securing funding to enhance services at nonprofit Jewish camps across North America for campers with disabilities. One of the major areas identified by the study was the need for trained inclusion specialists and for counselor training focused on serving children with a variety of needs.
One major step in this direction is our new partnership with the Ruderman Family Foundation, the FJC Ruderman Inclusion Initiative. Four camps have been selected as part of the pilot. Each camp will have a new, dedicated Inclusion Coordinator on staff to intentionally and meaningfully increase their camp’s capacity to serve campers with disabilities. These inclusion coordinators will also receive intensive training and mentoring over the course of three years. They will have the opportunity to learn about universal design, developing strategies to manage camper behaviors and creating cooperative learning for all campers.
Our inclusion efforts continue to grow and we are eager to help more camps find new ways to say yes and break down more barriers. We now have 60 overnight camps within our system who are currently serving children with disabilities. In 2014, we added 3 new programs, one of which is an inclusion program for boys who are deaf and in the summer of 2015, we anticipate several new programs at our camps. As Jewish leaders, camp directors, and educators, this is our responsibility.
It boils down to one major truth: every child, no matter who they are, has the right access the Jewish community. There’s no telling what the future of Jewish camp or the Jewish community will look like, but one thing is for sure: it will be a much richer, more welcoming community if it becomes an inclusive one.
Jewish camp is a place where each child has the ability to make their own Jewish choices and learn what it’s like being a part of a Jewish community. However, many of the children in North America defined as having a disability are not properly served by the Jewish camp community. Their ability to experience and explore their own Jewish identities and to feel what it is like to be a part of a Jewish community is often impeded by their disability and/or the lack of knowledge on the part of the camp on how to include them.
As Director of Disabilities Initiatives at Foundation for Jewish Camp, I work with our camps to increase the number of campers with disabilities. I work with camps on investing in staffing and training of camp staff, developing vocational and life skills training programs and enhancing their physical accessibility to children with disabilities. FJC aims to ensure that campers in North America with disabilities and their families experience camp as fully and completely as their typical peers. But what does inclusion at camp really look like? What are we, as a Jewish camp community, working towards?
Inclusion of children with disabilities at camp is the participation of such campers, to the greatest possible extent, in the full experience of a regular camp setting, alongside their peers. Campers with disabilities spend all of their time with campers without disabilities. The inclusive camp is structured in a way to allow for all campers to live and participate together while receiving appropriate supports and services based on their individual needs. Behavioral supports and accommodations are incorporated into daily living, often times under the guidance of an inclusion coordinator. The inclusion coordinator works closely with all staff to collectively provide and implement necessary accommodations and programmatic changes to achieve success for each camper.
Creating an inclusive environment also requires a philosophical shift so that all campers, regardless of abilities, will benefit. A dedication to the broad training of all staff to understand and work together in support of this vision is necessary. Camp-wide assessment of agency goals, programs, and activities within the camp’s overall mission will ensure that campers with varying abilities and needs would be able to fully participate in the life and culture of the camp.
Facilitating inclusion is more than building a ramp or providing extra staff at camp. It also has to do with making friendships possible by allowing campers with disabilities to fully participate in all of the activities that take place. This includes camp plays and dance competitions, as well as all of the other exciting sports, recreation, outdoor education, cultural arts, and social activities that take place during the summer months. Goals for each program need to be examined and revised so that camp becomes a place where individuals are allowed to thrive in all areas.
This inclusive approach will ultimately impact the entire community in many positive ways. One must ask the following types of questions: Is the appropriate goal to put on the perfect theatre performance with only the most competent actors participating? Must a finished product in the art shop look a certain way? and Does the blue team have to win every sports competition involving only the most talented athletes? Or is the value of the camp community to recognize attitude over aptitude? Every camper must have an opportunity to succeed and participate to their maximum extent.
February is Jewish Disability Awareness Month (JDAM)! JDAM is “a unified initiative to raise awareness and support efforts to foster inclusion of people with disabilities and their families in Jewish communities worldwide.” Inclusion at Jewish camp is a topic that is very important to us at the Foundation for Jewish Camp. Many of the camps we work with offer programs to campers with a wide range of disabilities. We are working to increase these opportunities, elevate staff training on inclusion, and increase community awareness about the inclusion programs that exist around them. To further the effort, we are running a series dedicated to discussing disabilities at Jewish camp this month.
Check back every Tuesday and Thursday in February for posts by camp directors, experts in the field, former campers, and more.
2014 was a big year for Jewish camping and 2015 will be even better! Check out this list of 5 great things we are looking forward to this year:
This year, FJC launched BunkConnect, an affordability initiative designed to help more middle and lower income families attend Jewish camp for the first time. With special rates as much as 40-60% off, BunkConnect helps first time camp families find the best summer experience for their children at an affordable cost.
2. Disability Initiatives
Traditionally, attending overnight camp is difficult for many children with disabilities due to limitations on staff, accessibility, and programming. This year, Lisa Tobin joined the ranks of FJC as the Director of Disability Initiatives. Lisa has been working with camps to help them reach out to and provide camp experiences to children with a range of disabilities. Through webinars, training, and the creation of a database of camps, FJC is actively working to turn the dream of Jewish overnight camp into a reality for disabled children.
3. Specialty Day Camp Incubator
The benefits of FJC’s Incubator are not just limited to overnight camps! This year, four day camps were chosen to participate in FJC’s Specialty Day Camp Incubator. Through mentor meetings and monthly workshops, the leaders at these day camps are learning to enhance their skills and programming to provide specialty day camp opportunities to new campers.
Earlier this year, the government of Israel hosted a meeting on the relationship between Israel and the global Jewish population to create the World Jewry Joint Initiative. Our own CEO, Jeremy Fingerman, was invited to Israel to attend and contribute to this endeavor. With a mission of enabling Jewish youth and young adults as active participants in Jewish life with a strong engagement with Israel, the World Jewry Joint Initiative is a revolutionary leap forward in inspiring Jewish citizens around the world.
The Initiative has released a list of areas to explore in terms of content, programming, and advocacy. Where did Jewish camp fall on this list? It came in at #2, signifying the vital role that Jewish summer camps play in the promotion of Jewish engagement and identity!
5. The Magic of Jewish Camp
In 2014, more than 76,000 campers and 11,000 staff members had magical and unforgettable summer at Jewish camp! They ran, climbed, sang, cheered, prayed, laughed, danced, and swam their way through every Shabbat, color war, song session and evening program. They reconnected with old friends and made even more new ones. They learned a lot and gained important new skils. Their lives were changed in one short camp session. We can’t wait to top all of that in 2015!
It’s only November, but I am already hearing the buzz of kids at Kiddush lunch talking about their plans for the summer. One particular young lady spent about a half an hour with me asking all of her most pressing questions as she mentally prepares for her first summer at Jewish sleep away camp. She wants to know what she should pack, what she can wear, will the girls be open to having a new person in their bunk, do the boys have payos –Hebrew for sidelocks or sidecurls, and will there also be other kids at camp who attend public school. What she was really getting at was the following: Will I fit in? Will the other campers and counselors look like me? Will I be at a disadvantage? Will I have fun? Fortunately, this 6th grader is very articulate. She is aware of her feelings and can ask for help in preparing for this big step in her childhood. She has already asked for some time to sit down with me again in the spring to further prepare and she has asked me to speak to her mom to provide any information I think would be important for them to know.
On another Shabbat, I had a conversation with a parent who has never experienced Jewish camping at all. His child has never attended a Jewish day camp and the family has never visited a sleep away camp. What this parent does know, is that every summer almost all of the children over the age of eight disappear from the halls and the sanctuary of the synagogue. They all go away for four to eight weeks to Jewish summer camp. And he knows when they return they are taller, they are happy and they have stories to share about their summer at camp. This is the experience that he wants for his child as well, and there are many questions to be asked about the different options available that will meet the family’s desires. What makes this conversation unique is that this parent has a child with a disability. That changes the nature of the conversation.
As the conversation progresses, the family expresses their desires (level of Judaism, types of activities, lake vs. pool, proximity to home) and the child also expresses their desires (activities that they like, food served at camp), but there are many more questions that are not expressed by the child. Unlike the girl I mentioned above, this child is not able to articulate her needs in the same way. For this family there is an awareness that they will need to make some compromises in order to find a place that will be the best place for their child. The non-negotiables: counselors who will know how to work with their child’s particular disability, their child will have fun, and their child will make a friend. While these desires are no different from the desires of other parents they may not make the top three on the list on non-negotiables.
Yes, finding the right summer home for a Jewish child to spend the summer is not an easy feat. For families of campers with disabilities the search may be a bit more extensive. Where to start? The Foundation for Jewish camp has a Find a Camp feature which enables users to search for camps throughout the country. You can also speak to your synagogue rabbi or other parents in your community to learn about the camps their children attend. The number of camps offering programs for children with disability continues to increase. Parents now have options across every Jewish denomination and movement, including non-denominational camps. Options also include general or specialty camps that exist in many parts of the country.
There are Jewish camps that offer programs for children with disabilities including, but not limited to: Deafness, ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Intellectual and Developmental disabilities as well as physical disabilities. I want to share a few examples of such programs. The Foundation for Jewish Camp welcomed Aryeh Adventures, its newest summer program for teens with disabilities in 2014. It is a teen travel program where participants travel across the West Coast. In the summer of 2014, Camp L’man Achai opened a program for Deaf boys and has plans for an even larger group this summer. Round Lake Camp of NJY Camps offers specialty camps with a variety of options including fine arts, sports and the sciences. Camp Moshava Malibu opened its doors in the summer of 2014 and already experienced much success with its inclusion program. Camp Yavneh in partnership with Yachad will open an inclusion program in the summer of 2015 and Camp Ramah Darom which runs a family camp, Camp Yofi, at the end of each summer, will now offer summer sessions for children with disabilities. Camp HASC is another such program which is focused on serving the social, therapeutic, academic, recreational, and medical needs of campers with intellectual and physical disabilities.
As you prepare for summer camp, I encourage you to meet with a senior member of the camp staff so that you can get a better sense of whether a particular camp would be a good fit for your child. You should also feel comfortable sharing as much information as possible about your child with the staff at your camp so they can begin to prepare for a successful summer for your child. Feel free to share things that make your child happy, their interests, their fears, their favorite bedtime rituals, their triggers and strategies that work well for you at home or for the teachers at home. Let the staff know how they can support your child and what tools they can use to help to make for a meaningful and fun summer at Jewish camp.
The number and variety of options will continue to expand as the Foundation for Jewish Camp continues to work towards our goal of meeting the needs of a diverse community and ensuring that every Jewish child experiences the joy of Jewish camp.
“You’ll see, he won’t want to leave in the end,” my wife, Cynthia, said. “He’s going to have the time of his life.”
“Not if his soon-to-be bunkmates see him crying?” I replied. Cynthia and I were in the process of putting our son, Jonah, on the bus to Camp B’nai Brith (CBB). CBB is a little more than an hour drive north of our home in Montreal and the plan was for Jonah to be there, if everything went according to plan, for three weeks. It would be, by far, the longest he’d ever been away. All we could do was speculate—and we figured to do a lot of speculating in the next twenty-one days—on how he would fare.
Incidentally, Jonah wasn’t the crying boy. In fact, our son headed straight for a seat at the back of the bus as soon as we arrived at the drop-off point. I didn’t even have a chance to hug him. I had to mouth my “have a great time!” through the tinted glass of the closed window. In return, I received the most cursory of acknowledgements. As if he was saying: “Let’s get this show on the road.”
Cynthia, however, boarded the bus in order to get a proper good-bye. She insisted Jonah hug her. I got on the bus, too, to watch and glimpsed something I don’t think I’ve ever seen on my fifteen-year-old son’s face—the hint of a blush. Jonah is on the autism spectrum and one of that complicated disorder’s mixed blessings, in Jonah’s case anyway, is obliviousness to embarrassment. This has served to make Jonah a uniquely sweet, open-hearted individual; it also means he can miss signals from others, emotional signals he’d be well-served to pick up on. In fact, this was one of the main reasons we were sending him to sleep-away camp. We hoped he’d learn to understand other people a little better, pick up on their cues.
Meanwhile, the crying boy, who was twelve or so, was also oblivious—to the pleading of others. And a lot of pleading was going on. You could barely make the poor kid out from behind a gesticulating crowd of relatives. Still, I could see his head shaking vehemently and hear his spluttering voice. He was repeating the words: “I’m not getting on the bus.” The more he cried the more relatives seemed to gather around him, all trying out different, often conflicting strategies, to reassure him. Eventually, a SWAT-like team of CBB counselors appeared and did an impressive job of liberating the reluctant camper from all that overwhelming love and concern. Their mission was clear: they were going to get the show on the road.
We’re “helicopter parents,” research studies and thinky magazine articles are always reminding us. When it comes to the parents of special needs kids, like Cynthia and me, this is an especially tone deaf judgment, but it’s kind of a slam at most parents when you think about it. In the case of summer camp, in particular, who can blame us for projecting onto our kids a little of our own childhood experiences? For Cynthia, this usually means remembering how “interesting” (the quotes are hers) summer camp was. For me, it means wondering how I would have fared at camp seeing as how I never went. My guess is I would have cried myself to sleep nightly. Then again, maybe not. Fortunately, the camp cliché persists, especially for worried parents, about how the kids who make the biggest fuss about going end up not wanting to leave. But that doesn’t make those childhood complaints any less real or any less eloquent. I have a friend who came across an old letter she sent to her parents from summer camp when she was probably seven or eight. It began with a description of her day and proceeded to a detailed list of grievances. She signed off with this lawyerly appeal: “Please consider my case.”
Camps nowadays are good at considering the concerns of parents, at least. CBB does a wonderful job with its daily online postings of dozens and dozens of photos. I search for Jonah, first, of course, relieved to find him hanging out with his fellow campers in the pool or playing basketball or out in a canoe with one of his counselors. But after I’ve assured myself that it looks like my son is having a good time, I can’t help looking at all the photos. There are kids waving, hamming it up for the camera, others lost in play. The photos convey camaraderie and mischievousness and, most of all, a spirit of fun. So much so I wish I knew more about each of their personal stories.
“That’s him?” Cynthia said the other day, glancing over my shoulder at the super-slow slide-show I was watching on my computer. I looked for the latest picture of Jonah but didn’t see it. “No,” Cynthia added, “the boy who refused to get on the bus.”
She was right. It was him: in his floor hockey gear, smiling widely in one shot; with a wide circle of new friends surrounding him in another shot. He was the happy camp cliché personified: he looked like he never wanted to leave.
In partnership with The Jewish Week’s “The New Normal” blog, FJC is pleased to present a series of blog posts featuring a range of different voices sharing the power and benefits of Jewish camp for those in our community who have disabilities.
We have all heard that Jewish summer camp is one of the most valuable experiences a parent can give their child to ensure a strong Jewish foundation. If you think of it as a construction project, the footings beneath the foundation is community and together, this community builds the foundation they share. As each child grows into an adult, the shared experience of community-building in a Jewish context continues to strengthen his or her Jewish foundation.
But the Jewish child with disabilities who cannot have a summer camp experience is left with an unstable foundation or worse; no Jewish foundation. As the parent of a child on the autism spectrum, I live with the fear shared by all parents of children with disabilities: Who will be my child’s community when I am no longer here to provide it?
At age 11, we began sending our son to overnight Jewish summer camp with his younger sister. A condition of his acceptance, we contracted with the camp for a one-on-one aide who slept in the cabin with our son and shadowed him as he moved with the mainstream campers. Each year it became more apparent that our son lacked the social and life skills his cabin-mates had developed and lacking these skills in a mainstream environment, our son would not be perceived as a full participant in this community.
Though we had resisted the model of separating campers with special needs from mainstream campers by cabin, at the urging of our rabbi, I contacted the director of Ramah Wisconsin’s Tikvah program when our son was 14. In describing the program, the director explained that every year since his arrival, the Tikvah program had become more integrated with the greater Ramah community. To my surprise, he suggested we keep our son in his current camp for another 2-3 years, at which time he believed Ramah would be ready for him.
After much discussion that included Ramah staff traveling from Chicago to our home in Minneapolis, our son left for his first summer as a Tikvah camper when he was 17. Tikvah campers are connected to Machon (campers entering 10th grade) from which a select group are chosen by staff to be paired with each Tikvah participant as their chaver (friend). Four weeks later at visitor’s day, I observed that the culture of the camp was one of acceptance, regardless of ability, with staff and campers embracing everyone in the Ramah community. With his chaver, our son participated in both typical camp activities and special programs for the Tikvah-Machon group.
After two years, our son moved into the Atzmayim (vocational) program where campers live in dormitory-style housing and focus on social skills and life skills development. Ramah staff trained our son for his job in town and also provided a job coach, ensuring he always felt like a productive member of a professional team. Five days a week, he had to prepare himself for his work day, beginning with prompt attendance at morning services, dressed for his job in town.
As a guest last summer on a non-visitors day, I witnessed my son as a full participant in the rhythm of Ramah, comfortably engaging with campers and staff and taking responsibility for his personal care with a conscientious focus on his summer job at the local grocery store. I also saw my son embracing Torah study and discussion about a myriad of Jewish topics, which made him feel so proud to be part of this Jewish community.
Now 21, our son is completing his final summer as a Tikvah/Atzmayim camper. Looking back, I can honestly say that each summer we witnessed significant social and emotional growth, along with life skills development; all of which has contributed greatly to his self-confidence. Through these programs, our son was given a safe, nurturing Jewish environment in which to grow and develop on all levels. Through Ramah and its culture of acceptance, our son was able to experience community-building in a Jewish context and after five years, he leaves with a solid Jewish foundation.
Later this month, my fifteen-year-old son, Jonah, is off to Camp B’Nai Brith (CBB) in the Laurentians, about an hour north of Montreal. He’ll stay for a full session, three weeks, longer by far than he’s stayed before. Naturally, I’m feeling some anxiety on his behalf. Or projecting, as my wife Cynthia calls it. She has a point. The idea of being in an isolated place for a prolonged period with strangers and nature (i.e. mosquitoes and a lack of air condition and Wi-Fi) has never been my idea of fun. That’s why my case of cold feet will be getting colder as the day of Jonah’s departure approaches. It’s in my nature, as a person and a writer, to find inspirational quotes that may be appropriate to any given situation. Inevitably, though, the quotes end up being inadequately inspirational. Like this one from the British writer Julian Barnes: “Time… give us enough time and our best supported decisions will seem wobbly…”
I also find myself wondering how much Jonah really wants to go. Projecting again, no doubt. In any case this kind of information would probably be hard to pry out of any teenager. Still, I know kids must get cold feet about sleep-away camp, too. Cynthia enjoyed her time as a camper and later a counselor, but she also remembers her decades-old “Y” camp song word for word. The first couple of lines, alone, are a model of adolescent ambivalence: “I go to YCC, so pity me. There’s not a boy in the vicinity.”
Measuring Jonah’s mixed feelings can be tricky. Jonah has autism and he can have a hard time making it clear how he’s feeling. Cynthia and I know him well enough to read between the lines of his sometimes off-topic conversation. But we also look to his behavior for unspoken clues. The other day, for instance, my sister, Marilyn, and I took Jonah shopping to pick up some of the extra clothing he needs for camp. When he and I got home we showed everything we bought to his mother and then I put them on his bed so he could put them away as he does with all his clothing. We’d bought some pretty cool t-shirts and shorts so I figured he’d want to wear them till he left for camp in a few weeks. The next day though I couldn’t find any of the things we’d bought. I looked for them in every drawer. I quizzed his mother. Finally, I did what I should have done in the first place. I asked Jonah where all his stuff had gone.
“In my bag,” he said.
“What bag?” I asked.
“The one for CBB.” And, indeed, there they were. All stuffed into one of the gym bags he will be taking with him to camp. It seems he can hardly wait.
His keenness is reassuring. Never more so than last weekend when Jonah, Cynthia, and I visited the CBB’s pre-camp Open House. Jonah was happy to see everyone, including counselors and staff he didn’t know. If my son has a philosophy, it’s cornier than mine but a lot more, well, inspirational. Summed up, it’s something like: “A stranger is a friend you haven’t met yet.” But he was really excited to see the counselors who were at CBB for his shorter stay last year. In fact, he seemed to have nicknames for all of them. “Hi, Quiet Wyatt,” Jonah shouted to one young man, who shouted back, “Hey Jonah, great to see you back!” He hardly looked like the quiet type, which was what made the nickname funny, of course. “Max and the Yaks” was what Jonah told me he calls the fellow who runs the camp’s circus program.
Jonah loves animals, especially unusual ones, so when he met his unit head, Mike, the two immediately hit it off, discussing animals from Mike’s native Australia. I volunteered kangaroos and received a look of disappointment from both Jonah and Mike. Mike seems to have had his fill of kangaroos as the iconic but hopelessly clichéd symbol of his country. Instead, he provided Jonah with a great deal of information about the platypus. “You know it’s one of the only mammals that lays eggs,” Mike said. Then he told Jonah it was from the small family of animals known as monotremes. “Like horses are equines and cows are bovines?” Jonah asked. “That’s right, mate.” Mike seemed to know just how to talk to Jonah, which was reassuring. Cynthia also found out that in Australia he was a teacher and had a class of kids with autism. Driving home, I already felt my feet warming up. Jonah and I also brainstormed about nicknames for his newest stranger/friend. So far, though, we’ve only settled on what Jonah won’t call him—Kangaroo Mike.