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The Full Spectrum: Why I’m Dreading Summertime

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The Full Spectrum focuses on the trials and tribulations of raising a child who ranks on the autism spectrum.

The weather is finally warm and moms everywhere are thrilled at the arrival of summertime. We bid farewell to bulky jackets and welcome carefree play dates in the park, outdoor soccer and, for some, full-day camp. With the latter comes early pick-up, late drop-off, opt-in lunches, snacks and in some instances, towel service (brilliant!). Camp has kids bouncing blissfully out the door and returning home exhausted and ready for bed.

I hate camp.

Though that hasn’t always been the case. When first I started out in the camp world back in 2006, everything seemed so simple. My son S. was 4 years old at the time, and he appeared much more “typical” than he does today; pre-Aspergers diagnosis, his behavior wasn’t totally out of the norm for someone his age. He may have been more impulsive and less mature than the majority of his peers, but he wasn’t alone with his wild behavior and lack of strong connections. Friends of mine had their own issues with camp, ranging from separation anxiety to kids with life-threatening allergies, so I was already familiar with how complicated camp could be for some families. But I really couldn’t relate. Until, of course, I could.

Camp stress begins in November, when the mommy emails start flying. You know the ones: parents ask where you’re sending your kid to camp and if you’ve signed up yet (some moms take camp so seriously, it feels as though they are the ones attending). As much as I try to avoid the hysteria of camp madness, I inevitably get sucked into the conversation. And so I find myself wondering where the right place will be for my kids to spend the summer.

Last year was a total disaster. I decided to send both my kids to a camp that many of my friends’ kids had attended in the past. It offered specialized programs like science and rocketry, animals and imagination, computer animation and all things that a child like S. would love. Like many kids on the spectrum, he’s not that interested in sports – and many camps have sports as the main focus for boys. My chosen camp, however, had all the nerdy activities my brainiac loves. And, although there was some mandatory sport stuff, they seemed to have great solutions for S. such as allowing him to be the referee or timing the kids; this way, he could be involved without having to fully participate. I signed, sealed and the delivered the application forms by mid-February.

When I touched base with the camp in May to discuss special provisions for S., the “special needs” coordinator said all the right things, even though I felt she was talking much more than listening.  My number one concern was that S. does not eat much during the day and he doesn’t like to eat around other people, especially if they are eating pasta.  She understood and assured me that one of the counselors could eat in the hall (outside of the cafeteria) with S. daily.

Off to camp we went!

Day one posed some challenges as my kids fought with each other on the bus, which apparently freaked out the counselors. No-brainer solution: separate them. Day two brought a much bigger problem: I got a call around lunchtime from the special needs coordinator – I’ll call her Jane – telling me that S. had locked himself in the bathroom during lunchtime because the kids around him were eating pasta. Immediately my head started spinning. How had this happened? He never had this problem at school. Was that his little pipsqueak voice in the background? And was this person discussing my son’s issues right in front of him?!

“Why was S. eating with other kids in the cafeteria in the first place?” was all I could muster in my most timid and apologetic voice. I was terrified that they were going to kick S. out of camp, leaving me totally screwed for the summer (I’m a working mom, after all).

Jane proceeded to tell me in a very aggressive and unapologetic tone that S.’s cabin did not have enough staff to accommodate his eating outside the cafeteria. I spent 30 minutes trying to solve the problem (could he sit in a corner? No, it’s too busy, I was told.  Could he sit outside the door of the cafeteria? No, not safe. Could he eat in the administrative office? Absolutely not). I eventually broke down crying and hung up the phone.

My extremely rational husband got involved and shot down her plan to have us pay extra for someone to sit with S. outside the cafeteria. After some choice words, Jane agreed that the camp would pay. But there was no apology. No acknowledgement that she and I had made this plan months earlier. All this from someone experienced in dealing with special needs kids!

Or wasn’t she?

I logged onto the camp website only to discover that Jane was a high school teacher with no special needs experience anywhere that I could see in her bio.  I felt like a total moron.

Lucky for me, I had some friends pull me out of my pity party. These were the moms who had years of experience in the wheeling and dealing of camp, school, programs, play dates and birthday parties, all in the name of their kids who needed a little bit extra to be safe and happy. I soaked in their wisdom and they taught me that a plan isn’t a plan until you get it in writing, and that we have to play the hands we are dealt.

So here we are again, a few weeks away from another new camp for my kids. I’m realizing that summertime may always be a source of anxiety for me – a continuous loop of explaining S. and making sure all the right things are  in place for him to have a good experience. I’m hoping to get the hang of it one of these days.

(Photo: Jupiterimages)