Saturday, June 26, 2010

What do the Scouts actually know about Special Needs?

For my blog readers who are getting sick of the scout stuff you can relax, this is the last post (it's only been the topic of the last 3 posts).

This is obviously going to be a subjective post because it depends greatly on your scout group. In this case, I'm talking about the special needs branch of scouting in NSW Australia.

I was recently at a two-day Special Needs Conference and I was quite interested to see their knowledge and attitudes towards special needs and the degree to which they engage with special needs children.

I was expecting to hear a couple of guest speakers and a bit of a potted history of special needs with maybe a couple of examples and some mid-eighties style attitudes.

I was totally blown away.

Apart from a couple of cringeworthy moments, the general quality of the conference was very high.

The Cringeworthy
It's always nice to get the horrid bits out of the way so we can spend time on the good stuff.

A Statement about Non-Disclosure
We were discussing parents who refuse to disclose their child's condition on the A1 (Permissions) form. The leader said; "Look at it this way. If the parent's don't disclose it on the form then we are under no legal obligation to provide appropriate assistance to the child who is struggling".

Obviously what he said was true but it just gave off a bad vibe.

There's a bit that parents and leaders need to take away from this discussion.
  1. Any conversation between parents and leaders regarding conditions that their child have is subject to "patient privilege". That's right. If it's verbal then it's a secret between the leader and the parent. The leader isn't permitted to tell the other leaders without first having consulted the parent.

    The only way that it can be made formal is when it is disclosed via a permissions form.

  2. Scout leaders are not supposed to use special techniques with children or provide special accommodation for children who are not formally disclosed. That doesn't mean that we don't. It simply means that a child with a disclosed condition will receive better support than a child with the same condition but without such disclosure.
A Wood-Badge Presentation on Aspergers and Autism
A leader who was going for his wood-badge (a sort of higher level of leadership) gave a presentation that he'd made on Aspergers and Autism. I'm not quite sure where he had done his research but it was badly wrong in serveral places. He even said that "children with aspergers have no emotions". I talked to the group leader after the presentation and he agreed that it was wrong but since that particular leader wasn't part of the special needs group, it probably didn't matter too much. Interestingly, the special needs leader did later verbally correct many of the incorrect statements without actually telling the presenter that he was wrong.

Ultimately, although his assessment of the condition was incorrect, the tips that the wood badge leader provided for "dealing" with children with the condition were correct. I guess in the end, that's probably the most important thing.

The Good and the Great Stuff
The conference covered a much wider variety of special needs children than I expected. It was refreshing to hear that they cater for, are sensitive to and have experience of;
  • Spectrum Disorders (Including Kanners, Aspergers, PDD-NOS etc)
  • ADHD and variants
  • Non-verbal Learning Disorder
  • Physical Disorders (Missing/Damaged Limbs, Juvenile Arthritis, Brittle Bones etc)
  • Sensory Disorders (Deaf, Bind and even SPD)
  • Cerbal Palsy
  • Allergies and Asthma
  • Children subjected to domestic violence and/or trauma
  • Eating Disorders
  • Dsylexia
  • Hydrocephalus
  • Fragile X
  • Anxiety Issues
As well as giving a potted explanation of most of these conditions, the conference covered topics such as "duty of care", planning activities which involve children with special needs, teaching methods for children with special needs and disability awareness.

The Limitations of Knowledge
The explanations were all given by qualified professionals but it was impressive that the scout special needs leader started the session off with a word of caution that nobody knew everything. The scouts recognize that they can learn from both the medical profession and from those affected by the conditions they describe. They aren't afraid to ask for assistance and they understand that sometimes a doctor's opinion isn't necessarily the same as the patients.

We were told that sometimes medical professionals have ideas which can be offensive to people with the condition and that truly the best thing we can give special needs children is a sense of acceptance and belonging.

There was an amazing amount of respect from the scouts. I was very impressed. The leader stressed the point that nobody should feel sorry for children who are in this condition. They don't want you to "feel sorry" for them. They want you to accept and to respect them.

He made it very clear that we were never to help without being invited to help. That sometimes people; children especially, need to feel that they can do things on their own. He did however make it clear that we need to enter their world when they can't enter ours. The example given was that when talking to someone who is wheelchair bound, we must crouch down to their level.

It is rude to talk down to them. He asked us, "How long must a person in a wheelchair look at someone's pants fly before they get sick of it?" (to which one wag - not me - answered, "you mean there's an answer to that?").

It's a good point though. In order to have effective communication, we must be in the same world. It's easy to see how we could enter the world of a blind or deaf person but how could a neurotypical scout leader enter the world of a child on the spectrum. I'll have to ponder that one a bit.

True to scouting ideals, the conference wasn't a talk only show. There were plenty of activities too. Many in fact, that I'll be taking back to my own group where I'll be running a "differently-abled" night.

In one exercise, we were asked to write "Cerebal Palsy" upside down, back-to-front and using our non-favored hand. This was intended to bring home the frustrations of poor muscle control and co-ordination. In another exercise, people were given chocolates and asked to keep one hand behind their back and open them without using their teeth (or their partners).

Another standout session was conducted in absolute silence. We were given tasks to do and had to do them without speaking and without writing. We had sign-language cards and could only use them to communicate. It was interesting to note that some people tried and others gave up too easily. It's clear that there's significant variation between leaders, their capabilities and their tolerances. We also did a mime form of chinese whispers which was hilarious.

Reaching Children
There were a few sessions on reaching children with special needs. We were shown how to convert standard scouting activities, such as knot tying and constructing cooking fires into social stories and matching games which are suitable for children who have difficulty learning. We also met a man who felt that music was the key to the hearts of children and who went about forming special needs bands. His session was certainly not for children with auditory sensitivities but I could see how it would help.

Throughout the conference the leaders were promoting a pirate themed Agoonorette to be held at Glenrock Scout Centre from 1st - 4th October 2010. I was pretty impressed that they opened it to all scouts and guides with and without special needs.

The Incidence of Special Needs Children and Leaders
One final point. Most of the leaders at the conference had one or more special needs children (either their own or within their group) and many of the leaders had special needs themselves. These leaders did not work at special needs branches. They worked in local mainstream scouting branches.

Scouts has special needs groups around the country but the degree of acceptance within mainstream scouting is so high that unless a child has insurmountable issues, they can usually be integrated into their local group. I think we could all learn a lot from the scouting acceptance.


father of four said...

Wow Gavin. I'll admit to having mixed feeling when reading this post about disclosure, etc. Your post convinced me to look into it further.

Apples and Autobots said...

I have to admit that I understand what they were saying about disclosure. I'm a teacher, and I come across parents all the time who don't want the school to know that their child has a "disability," but that makes it harder for the child to get the support they need. I'm sure that Scout Leaders and teachers alike willing offer support when they can, but they have to know about the condition first. I have a son with Asperger's, and I make sure his teachers know, so that they can help him appropriately.

Angela said...

My son is in scouts and he loves it. Soccor was a disaster, but scouts has been great.

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg said...

Wow, Gavin, this is amazing to hear. Wouldn't it be great if every man, woman, and child had to attend such a conference? It would go a long way toward opening people's hearts and minds and easing the frustration/isolation of disabled people everywhere.

As to the guy who said kids with Asperger's have no emotions: I think I must be getting somewhere when my response to that is an eye roll rather than an adrenaline rush...

Scott Looney said...

As part of my Woodbadge training, I made a website for parents and leaders of scouts with ADS. It is designed to give parents information about the benefits of the scouting program and to give leaders information to help with scouts with ASD. (

dnyduck said...

I am a Cub Scout leader in California. My son is ADHD and I have another ADHD in my den. Two boys just transfered from other units to mine due to problems with "fitting in" because they have ADHD and Aspergers. When I just had 2 with ADHD I signed up for a class during our Council's University of Scouting training that was geared just for Special Needs Scouts. It was maybe 1 1/2 hours long and never even came close to covering what yours did. I wish it had now that I have 3 with ADHD and 1 with Aspergers. This is what brought me to your blog. Thank you for the information. It was very helpful.

Miguel Palacio said...

Gavin, that was quite the situational report (SitRep) there, thank you. And thorough.

Miguel Palacio said...

Regarding parents who don't disclose their child's condition, or are simy unaware, or in denial: Couldn't a good school or organization such as the scouts or Civil Air Patrol (provided they had well trained leaders) be able to detect the special need and address it anyway? Isn't this just a matter of awareness amongst those who teach, guide, mentor and instruct?

IMHO, these institutions need to be more pro-active in these sorts of things. I agree that parents should take the initiative, but I also believe that the institutions should be pro-active as well.