I've just come back from a scout leader "training-conference" for special needs scouting and I'm inspired by their acceptance, preparedness and amazing teaching methods.
I'll talk more about the conference itself in a later post but right now I want to talk specifically about why Scouting is such a good choice of activity for children with aspergers and the other higher functioning forms of autism. Most of what I cover here is also applicable to children with ADHD.
One of the main reasons for getting your children into after school activities is to help them establish "fallback friendships". This is particularly important for children who are isolated for various reasons or who have poor social skills.
Unfortunately as parents of children with ASDs, we have to accept that there will be times when our child feels that their entire school hates them. This quite often results from a massive social blunder which travels from class to class like a big joke. Your child may even learn to fear smiling faces because they learn that those smiles aren't about friendship but are instead about ridicule.
It's great then to think that our children could have "backup friends" with little or no connection to their school and who usually lack the frame of reference to understand the "tattle-tales" of scouts from the same school.
Even better, if the number of children in the scout group who are from the same school is low and if the leader is made fully aware of the problem he can often prevent it from being discussed in scouts by forewarning the possible source children of the consequences of bullying.
The rules of scouting are very much designed around inclusion and although bullying still does occur, it seems to be much easier to control in a scouting environment. The Australian Joey groups (the youngest level of scouting) have as their motto "HOP" which stands for "Help Other People". We start young and there is no place for bullying in scouts.
With after-school sports like soccer, football, cricket and baseball, the parental involvement is usually kept to a minimum and we are forced to stay on the sidelines to watch our child make agonising mistake after mistake. Even worse, there's always a "sport-maniac parent" on your side (or on the other side) who recognises your child's inabilites and either makes inappropriate comments or organises his team's attack to concentrate on the weakest point - your child.
In scouting, particularly in the lower levels of Joey and cub scouting, parental involvement isn't just desirable, it's actively sought. You don't have to be a leader, you can be a parent helper - or you can just stay and watch (a lot of parents treat scouts as a babysitting service and don't stay).
If your child has special needs then this is your big chance to watch their interactions with other children from within the group. An opportunity which isn't generally available in the school curriculum. Of course, even though you can easily intervene when watching your child, you generally should avoid the temptation to do so unless your child is under duress or threat. It's better to let most of the mild mistakes happen - and let another leader resolve them. You can talk to your child at home afterwards and help them to improve their interactions without embarrassing them in front of their peers.
Variety and Structure
It may seem a little strange to be talking about the benefits of "variety" when it's clear that our aspie children don't like change but scouting is "variety within structure".
While it varies from group to group, most groups have a nightly timetable and all activities are bounded by an opening and closing ceremony which varies little. The rest of the night tends to be a mix of activities, games and information but it's surprisingly structured with many activities leading directly into others.
Even the games are structured. In the group I'm involved with, we divide our games into fast, medium and slow. We always start with fast games, have medium games in the middle and run slow games at the end. That's right, we actually try to calm our kids down before they go home.
This structure is great for kids with Aspergers as it makes it easy to forewarn them of programme changes. I leave a copy of the night's programme with my phone (for the clock) on a kid-height bench surface - and I refer to it regularly throughout the night.
I'll often show newcomers and children with change acceptance issues how to read the timetable and they quickly learn to answer their own "agenda" questions and become prepared - I still tend to give a bit of warning before ending an activity or game.
It's not all structure though and the variety aspect is equally important. Traditional after-school and weekend activities, such as soccer, football, tennis and golf are very repetitive. They're either team sports where it suddenly (and conveniently) becomes all too easy to blame the least able of our colleagues for our losses on the field - or they're "individual" sports where the players spend a lot more time simply "waiting for their turn" than they do actually "having" their turn. This is particularly painful when a child gets "out" after less than a minute of playing (and a twenty minute wait).
A child can quickly grow to hate a sport which doesn't afford them opportunities. The problem is that if your child has been signed up for a sport, they're often stuck with it for the season. If they're playing soccer - and they hate soccer - they still have to attend every weekend and "play" soccer. Sometimes they have soccer training during the week too. You will notice that children who hate their sport tend to either walk off the field or simply not participate (for example sitting near the goalposts). This only serves to annoy their fellow players and widen the gap between them and the group. If you see this happening to your child, then it's better to remove him from the game than to allow reports of his behaviour to reach his peers at school.
Scouts is different. Some nights we play soccer, sometimes it's craft, sometimes it's intellectual pursuits. There's opportunities for leadership and the badge system allows individuals to grab moments of glory at their own pace. Usually, it's a mix of games, craft and activities. The variety keeps it interesting and prevents less capable children from being ostracised for their lack of prowess while still giving them a taste of a wide variety of activities.
Next time I want to look at how the scouting movement accommodates the aspie special interests, how the badge system promotes learning, how scouts provides much needed "life-skills" and the critical importance of those four words; "We'll do our best!"