Autism, Camp, and the Power of Friendship

Rabbi Isaac Saposnik is the director of Camp JRF in South Sterling, PA.

Two summers ago, I met David for the first time. Before he arrived in camp, we spoke with his parents about his Autism, how it might impact his experience at camp, and what their goals were for him – both during the summer and beyond. They were incredibly open and realistic, and we were upfront about what we could offer. And while we all hoped for the best, I must admit that I entered the summer with a bit of trepidation, worried that we might not be able to live up to all of our expectations.

Boy, was I in for a surprise.

David jumped head first into the camp experience. He participated in all of the activities, loved the
David-JRF
food, and always had a smile on his face. He shared his love of basketball and brought us the tradition of chocolate breakfast (with thanks to our friends at Camp JCA Shalom). A week or so into the session, I showed up in our teatron (theater) to hear David talk with fifty of his peers – our ninth and tenth graders – about autism. We knew his mitzvah project had been on the topic and that he had spoken about it in other places; he came into the summer wanting to share it with us.

Our campers are incredibly thoughtful, kind, and amazingly aware that everyone is different and has their own gifts to bring to the community. Even so, surrounded by a group of teens, I was worried that, after a great first week, David’s positive experience could end when he stepped up to the microphone. And then he began to speak … and you could feel the teens’ excitement. There was laughter at the right times, good and thoughtful questions, and, when he finished speaking, thunderous applause. As everyone got up to leave, I watched David giving high fives, smiles, and huge bear hugs to his friends.

Even David would tell you that kids with autism often have a hard time making friends. But in just three short weeks, he had made incredible friends. He kept in touch with them all year. Last summer, he counted down the minutes until his best friend, who is a year older than him, returned to camp from his trip to Israel. And he got a letter from a friend who had other plans for the summer and said the thing he would miss most about camp was David.

Jewish camp – with values like derekh eretz (character) and kehillah (community) – is powerful. Surrounded by their peers, kids build relationships that they couldn’t imagine at home. The power of camp is that it allows kids to truly become their best selves, no matter how hard that might seem the rest of the year. After this past summer, David’s mom sent us a note: “We are so happy that David has a place he can go and feel comfortable, make friends while being himself – Camp JRF is his home away from home. We believe his camp experience is preparing him in so many ways and we are grateful beyond words to you and your staff for giving him the opportunity.”

To tell you the truth, I’m grateful to her for giving us the opportunity. Learning from, laughing with, and just knowing David is truly a blessing. We are lucky to have him as part of our camp family.

(Autism Speaks recently debuted an animated short film of David’s speech. Directed by Matt Manning, one of the animators of Robot Chicken, you can watch it here.)

 

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