This post follows on from part 1.
In part 1, we looked at the idea of "fallback friends", the opportunities for parental involvement and the balance between variety and structure. In part two, we'll be looking more specifically at the structure of the scouting programme and rewards system and how it meets the needs children with aspergers.
Since my scouting experience tends to be limited to the younger ages, I'll be using a lot of cubs-specific terminology. Rest assured, the other parts of the scouting movement equally cater for special needs.
The Special Interest
Few aspies are so caught up in their special interest that they are unable to focus on anything else but most experience significant improvements in their results if they can somehow bring their special interest into their work. It's common to use the child's interest to drive their other activities at school but how does this work at scouts?
The badge system at scouts is an amazingly wide-ranging set of tasks designed to increase the skill sets and life experience of "youth members" while still encouraging them to seek out new experiences and opportunities.
Since I'm most familiar with cubs and since one of my son's special interests is "star wars" (SW), I'll use these to illustrate my point. The names in brackets are specific cub scouting badges which apply;
- Reading SW Books (Literature)
- Acting out Star Wars scenes or playing SW music (Entertainer)
- Making SW masks and/or puppets (Masks and Sculpture)
- Automatic interest in space (Space)
- Sewing SW patterns or otherwise making SW objects (Handcraft)
- Baking SW themed cookies (Cooking)
- Drawing, Designing or Painting SW vehicles (Art and Design)
- Taking stop-motion lego SW photos (Photography)
- Collecting, labelling and Arranging SW Figures and vehicles (Collector)
- Playing SW Games, Web Browsing, Computer Painting etc (Information Technology)
That list is nowhere near exhaustive but I'm sure that my point is clear. Scouting provides opportunities to earn rewards by indulging the special interest. Along the way, you may even find that your child develops some new special interests. I recently read a story about a girl who developed "scouting badges" as a special interest and collected all of the badges in record time.
Leadership Skills and Group Work
It's often said that people with aspergers hate group work unless they're in charge. I've never seen anything that contradicts this theory.
Scouting encourages both group and individual work. Sometimes group work is done in randomly assigned teams (games and large crafts) but most of the time it is done in the same small groups and with the same peer leaders. In cubs, these are called "sixer packs" and they usually contain six children two of whom are leaders.
The low numbers and relative constancy of these groups make it easier for aspies to develop relationships with their peers and participate in group-work. Certainly the mix is less "difficult" than school groupwork where teams are usually assigned at random and with no discernable leadership structure.
The chance that an aspie will rise to a position of leadership within the group is good too. In fact, with youth members leaving the groups for various reasons (moving house, moving up to the next level of scouting etc), the chance is significantly greater than 1 in 3.
Such a position not only provides a much needed jolt of self-esteem and peer respect for aspie children, it also tends to inspire them onto bigger and better things. Children in leadership roles need to make decisions on behalf of the group. They learn to trust their peers and to delegate responsibility. Most importantly, they need to learn how to consider the needs, abilities and feelings of everyone in their group. What better practice can there be for an aspie who needs to learn how to interpret and show empathy?
Doing our Best...
One of the most innovative and praiseworthy aspects of scouting is the concept of "doing our best". Unlike traditional after school activities where children are rewarded for athletic prowess, being better than their fellows (man of the match), specific artistic or intellectual talents, stamina or just "winning", scouting recognises the fact that sometimes children have simply done the best that they can.
It's this sort of "everyone gets a prize" mentality which encourages cooperative rather than competitive play. Children with aspergers do not like to lose. They already have enough derogatory labels applied to them by their peers without adding "loser" to the list. They also often don't get the concept of winning. For example; it's not uncommon for an aspie child who has run fourth in a race to have difficulty understanding why there is a ribbon for third but not for fourth place.
You might be thinking that the "do your best" system rewards children for non-participation but that's not the case at all. Scout leaders quickly learn the capabilities of individual children and will expect different levels of work. For example; a child with good writing skills may be expected to provide half a page of written work while a child who struggles with writing may only have to provide a couple of lines - or perhaps even only a verbal answer.
We all hope that our children will grow up to become self-sufficient adults but how often do you hear about the cliché of the thirty-something son who still lives with their parents? Scouting teaches children many of the skills they need to look after themselves in life. There are badges for cooking, sewing, gardening and even operating washing machines and vacuum cleaners. These badges give kids an incentive to learn those day-to-day tasks which they would otherwise be content to let others do for them.
In the higher levels of scouting, life skills change from being simply regular camping outings to survival skills with a strong emphasis on safety and preparedness. There's a pretty good chance that the skills your children learn in scouts will serve them better than most of things they learn at school.
Choosing a Group
Right then, you're convinced... so let's join scouts! Pick a group, any group, they're all the same - right?
There is a massive variation from one scout group to another. Some are denominational, some cater more for specific cultural needs and some cater more for special needs children. Even amongst the bog-standard groups there is intense variation.
Scout leadership is a voluntary pursuit and although all leaders go through the same intensive training, they all have different skill sets, temperments and reasons for being there.
Many scout leaders have special needs children themselves. You'd be surprised at the wealth of knowledge and experience out there. Some leaders lack special needs knowledge and can't (or won't) tolerate special needs children in their group. Unfortunately, this is a sad part of human nature and certainly not something to blame the whole scouting movement for.
If you discover a group like this, it's not worth fighting for your child's right to stay. It's far better to look for another local group where your child will find instant acceptance - believe me, there are plenty. Scouts gives you opportunities to "try before you join". Use these opportunities to find the most appropriate groups in your area - and don't forget that you can always contact your regional office for information on the closest special needs groups.
One final note. Scout leaders can only accomodate your child's special needs if they know about them. Too many parents try to "save their children from the label". This backfires when they do something label-specific (like have a meltdown) and the leaders provide an inappropriate reaction. Every time your child goes on a scouting trip, there's a form to be filled out. The forms are more than simply insurance, they help the scout leaders to "be prepared". If they know about your child's specific issues then they can render the most appropriate assistance and avoid dangerous or explosive situations. They can also tailor parts of the programme to your child's specific needs.
After all, it's not just about having a good time, it's about getting our children prepared for the future.