Friday, June 11, 2010

Why is Scouting Particularly Suitable for Children with Aspergers and other ASDs. (Part 2)

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.

Life Skills
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.

Full Disclosure
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.


eaucoin said...

I hadn't thought about how much more personal goal-oriented scouting is compared to a lot of other activities. I think school used to be more like this. It is inspiring to see parents of special needs children finding ways to adapt activities when their are gaps in the help available. What a wonderful example for all the children.

victor said...
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Clarissa said...

What I don't understand is why not leave the Aspie child alone to pursue her special interest in peace instead of trying to get her involved in all this?

When I was a child, my parents tried to involve me in all kinds of activities and it was simply torture. I still have no idea why I couldn't have been simply left in peace to do what I enjoyed.

Gavin Bollard said...


It's a good point but cub scouting for example is only 90 minutes per week - and not during holidays. It's not that bad and there's still plenty of time for children to do other activities.

Camps are optional and although we try to arrange one per term, it usually averages 2 camps per year. Two weekends out of 52. Again, I think that's quite reasonable and leaves enough time for other activities.

I wouldn't recommend doing any other activities (various sports, clubs etc) on top of this. One year-round activity is plenty for a child on the spectrum.

Parents should encourage their children to participate - not force them to. Perhaps in the beginning, bargaining with their child will help. For example; "if you do one whole term, then you will get (prize x)" Hopefully the kids will enjoy it enough to want to keep going.

As for WHY... well, it's all to do with social practice and learning. Asperger children who don't participate in these sorts of activities learn less social skills and end up being more isolated and less communicative in adulthood. Don't forget that scouts develops a lot of very useful life skills. Stuff you generally won't get by reading books on the subject.

If it was torture for you, then you were either at the wrong group or perhaps you had less than supportive parents. It should be enjoyable and I don't know any of any kids in our group who don't have a great time.

Of course, if it's obvious that your child hates it, then you shouldn't make them go.

Autumn said...

I'm currently a teenager in girl guides (girl scouts). I'm not diagnosed with Asperger's because my symptoms are ignored due to the lack of knowledge about Asperger's. So I would really like to emphasize the importance of full disclosure because the standard program can actually not work for someone with an ASD.

My experience in guides has led me to isolate myself even more. Despite being in a patrol and having other girls the same age to interact with, I still get left out due to cliques being formed. A lot of work gets done in patrols, but everyone just naturally leaves me out from the conversation and it only serves to emphasis my differences.

The badges system only serves to stress me out because I usually cannot use my special interests in medicine and pokemon to complete the task. For example, for the music badge, only certain songs can be played in order to pass. For the craft badge, we can only sew finger puppets, which is extremely difficult for someone with coordination problems and the decoration on the finger puppets couldn't involve pokemon because it's "immature" and I failed for putting pokemon on my puppet. Only once has my special interest been used during a first aid course, where I aced the course without any problems. And we have to complete a badge within a certain timeframe instead of completing them of our own accord.

Some activities might also be very stressful. Marching drills are hell on earth for me because I have to stay perfectly still for hours on end in uncomfortable positions, which makes absolutely no sense to me. I have had meltdowns because I can't tap my feet when I'm stressed out during drills, but it's compulsory to take part unless I'm injured.

And all of this is basically there to say that full disclosure is important in ensuring that the program is tailored to help a child with an ASD, or the experience might turn out to be a pretty negative one.

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg said...

Like everything else, scouting will work for some autistic kids and not others. I don't think that Gavin was saying that all autistic kids should do scouting; clearly, he sees the ones for whom it makes sense. In his posts, I think he was trying to describe the benefits of scouting for kids who enjoy certain kinds of opportunities and experiences and aren't able to find them elsewhere. It sounds like scouting is a great resource, and I'm so glad that Gavin has made all this information available.

As wonderful as scouting sounds, however, I know that it wouldn't work for me. That's just my particular neurology. But if I had an autistic child, I'd give it a try and see whether the child enjoyed it. I've always introduced my NT kid to as wide a range of experiences as possible, advocated for her well-being when necessary, and let her decide which activities worked. I wouldn't have done anything differently with an autistic child.

Marita said...

We made the wrong choice with our Joey Scout group. It was too disorganised for our girls, even I found the chaos distressing and my husband would go hide in a corner of the room with his iphone when it was his turn to go.

Unfortunatly it put us all off the Scouts movement and while I am now keen to give Scouts a second chance the rest of my family is not :(

Gavin Bollard said...


Wow. I can see that you're having some very difficult experiences in guides. I don't know much about guides and their rules but I can quote the cub scout book on activities and I know that it doesn't set time-frames and it doesn't unnecessarily set subjects.

In the literature badge for instance, it says;

1. Read six books, all by different authors, approved or recommended by your local librarian or school teacher.

2. Write a different ending to one of the above books you have read.

3. Visit your local or school library and explain:

a. the difference between fiction and non-fiction books.
b. what to do when borrowing and returning books from the library.
c. three things you can do to care for books.

4. Choose one of the following:
a. Write a 'Thank You' letter to someone who helped you or your Pack with a task or visit, or gave you a gift.
b. Write a poem based on a topic of your choice.
c. Write a description of one of the books listed in the year's "Book Week Awards".
d. Make a book mark.

There's no specific subject other than "approved by librarian" and there's no timeframe other than the length of time that you attend cubs.

That's the way it should be. It should never be stressful. (and btw: Cub Scouts doesn't have marching drills - I'm not sure about "big" Scouts but I don't think they have them either).



Spot on as always. I'd love to be able to say that scouting is for everyone but it isn't. We're all different and some people have more sensory problems than others.

If you can do it, then IMHO it's probably a better choice than most team sports but if you can't, then nobody should expect you to. Parents should encourage (and even "bribe") their children to attend events but they should never force them.



Sadly, you've stumbled on the very reason why I said that not all groups are the same. If you can find a group that suits - great. If not, I'm sure that you can find other scout-friendly ways to do things.

You might even just run the scout programme at home and make your own badges.

Have a look at the rules for badges on the Rosanna cub scouts page. You'll find that it's easy to do varied activities at home (which are great for learning and experience) without necessarily having to actually do meetings.

My own cub scout resources site isn't quite finished yet but you'll find some ideas for games etc. on it.

fite4truth said...

I put my son in a boy scout camp that was daily and he enjoys it at six now at eight w/ aspergers he was really angry at all the kids reminding him what to do and the den leader kept screaming his name. But the leaders had never heard of aspergers ?!? So we will look for a group that has special needs experiences and they do have a sort of scouting iep they can do. He loved the activities just not the other kids or adults.

Gavin Bollard said...


You're right. It's time to find a new group with special needs knowledge (and preferably a leader with a special needs child).

Shouting is "illegal" in our group, as are whistles and other forms of discipline which lean towards punishment.

We want the kids to have a good time and although we have to occasionally time-out a child, we're sensitive to how often we do it. It's got to be fun.

For some kids who have a difficult time at home, we want scouts to be a place where they can relax. We've discovered that if the parents catch us singling them out (eg: for being sloppy on parade) then some have a tendency to carry out their own discipline at home.

Obviously we don't want that to happen, so we're prepared to tolerate a little from the kids who can't help it.

Steve Borgman said...

Gavin, thank you for your post. I highly agree that Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts is ideally suited for kids on the autism spectrum. But I also resonate with the comments of those before who said it was torture to them. I finally pulled my son out of Boy Scouts because he was truly miserable. It was hard for me to hear that, because I saw so many benefits, but I think that a lot of the camping and other activities were simply not for him.

Anonymous said...

"So we will look for a group that has special needs experiences and they do have a sort of scouting iep they can do."

Good point - and remember that not all special needs are the same!

One "special needs" group may be for Deaf scouts and have its meetings in a sign language instead of a spoken language, which doesn't help if your disability is something else and you only know spoken and written languages.

Another "special needs" group may be tailored for scouts with more physical disabilities. For example, a scout troop leader may need to reducing the odds of fractures for a scout who has brittle bone disease (and when you have brittle bone disease and someone else lashes out and hits you, your skeleton can't say "oh *this* time it's from someone who can't help it and is having a meltdown so this time it doesn't count" - your bone will break no matter how much the other person can't help lashing out).

gpbrown said...

You're so right, Scouts can be a great place to work on aspie social skills. Another place (online) is a new interactive website that lets Asperger's kids rehearse social skills face-to-face. The multiple-choice conversation simulations show the facial reaction of the person you're talking to, and give social skills feedback on what you just said. Many of the courses are free; find them at

dillonmb said...

My son will be moving to scouts in a week and I'm worried.He has AS symptoms. We went to a winter campout where the boy scouts that most cubs in our pack feed into invited the Webelos. It was intense stress for both of us. Used to cub scouts where we would stay in the same tent, but here they separated the adults from the boys, and my son was very stressed about privacy (in a cabin with 12 other boys), sleeping with a light on, etc. Not to mention, not fond of winter activites.

I don't know if this separation thing is common in all troops, but I would like to be with him, while encouraging independence. I want him to be in scouting, but am unsure about this troop. Also, it is frustrating to work in groups, especially since one boy who is always in his group is ADHD, parents refuse to put him on meds, and the big thing is the child is highly competetive and rubs accomplishments in the other boys faces. I feel like switching troops to get away from him.

Gavin Bollard said...


In Australia, we don't even permit our cub scouts to sleep in the same tent as their parents - or any adults.

Our Joey scouts (the youngest) get to sleep with their parents but even then, it's only with a parent of the same gender if they're in a group.

You probably haven't done your son any favors by making the sleeping arrangements too easy for him.

We get cubs all the time who have different requirements and we do our best to satisfy them.

You should talk to the scoutmaster and see if you can get your son into a smaller tent, this will reduce the noise factor etc. Also, get him some glow sticks for just outside the tent - not inside because the kids chew on them.

Finally, at home, you need to work with your son on getting changed discreetly without drawing undue attention to yourself.

Scouts should take all kinds of kids and the scoutmaster should be understanding. If they're not, then find a group who is.

dillonmb said...

I don't know if you understand what I'm saying. I don't have a problem with the sleeping arrangements if that is the way is done. That was just part of it, it was just a dramatic change for both of us from cub scouts and I wish we had been informed beforehand. We will give it a try allowing for an adjustment period.

First of all, in cub scouts, it wasn't me who initiated the sleeping arrangements. We slept in tents, father and son--that's the way the pack did things.

In the scout camping trip, it was not a tent but a cabin with a dozen other scouts and a senior patrol leader. My son had never been in this type of arrangement before--group cabin, and we learned that the adults would be in a separate cabin next door AFTER we arrived. He had a lantern to keep on which helped since the SLP turned out the lights at 11; no questions asked. My son also set up a "tent" using blankets for his privacy issues. Nobody seemed to take issue with that, even though the tent thing was different.

I'm just saying this particular instance was too dramatic of a change from the way our cub scouts do things from the troop. You can't expect an AS child to adapt to 360 degree changes overnight.

We will give it time.

Gavin Bollard said...

Sorry dillonmb,

You're right, I didn't realize that the issue was primarily about Change. Our cubs already follow the sorts of sleeping arrangements you describe on winter camps (summer ones are in tents, winter is in dorms).

The best you can do is liaise with the leaders to find out as much about the campsites (and their plans) as you can.

The scout motto of "be prepared" is good advice for change management too.

Good luck.

Rob said...

I'm seeking some advice on a child with Asperger’s. I’m a leader in Cub Scouts covering ages 8 to 10. One of our children (10 year old boy) has Asperger’s Syndrome. My family has been friends with his family so he is generally comfortable around me.

When he was 8 and younger, he’d have an incredibly high-pitched piercing scream. He also has quite a temper and is prone to striking out. This past year he essentially replaced the scream with a slew of profanities. He also has become more physical and has either pushed or striking other children. As a leader, we want to have all children engaged and enjoying the program. For the most part the kids are somewhat used to this boy; however his swearing and physical outbursts are becoming intolerable to other children and their parents. Our goal is to find an effective way to work with this boy and include him in activities. From what I understand of Asperger’s, these children often don’t enjoy group work, and choose to participate only when they want to participate. While we encourage this boy, we recognize that it is best to respect his decision not to participate in activities. But as I understand it, swearing is not necessarily a characteristic of Aspergers. Nor do I believe this child has Tourette’s syndrome. I have a nephew with Tourette’s, and while I’m no expert, I suspect this child doesn’t have uncontrollable outbursts. Indeed I believe he characteristically can control his outbursts.

From your knowledge, is swearing an associated characteristic of Asperger’s? Do you have any suggestions on how to deal with his swearing?

The challenge is finding a balance to being inclusive of all children, while not alienating participants because of the sporadic outbursts of one individual.

Wendi Baggaley said...

Hi Rob, My now 12-year old son with Aspergers went through a phase two years ago where he did exactly like what you were describing - swearing profusely, pushing, shoving, etc. while at scouts. It came to a head when a parent of one of the other scouts sent me a nasty anonymous email via a scout leader that pushed me to tears. I know that at the time, my son felt "trapped" in a lot of things, especially in school with a very negative teacher and a crowded, extremely noisy classroom. Unfortunately, several of the boys in his scout troop were also in his class at school. I think a lot of his actions were his way of trying to get attention because he felt so trapped. When school ended a couple of months later, and when we eased up a bit on requiring him to go to scouts every week, he was able to relax a bit. Perhaps a bit of maturity helped too, but I never hear about him swearing at scouts anymore. He attends if they're doing something he will enjoy, and when they're doing something like sports (which he can't stand) he stays home. Good luck with your son, I know it's hard!

Dean said...

Does anybody know of a Yahoo/Google/whatever email list for parents of Scouts with Aspergers'? I've seen estimates that up to 10% of BSA Scouts are on the autism spectrum. At 2.6 million U.S. members, that's hundreds of thousands of parents whose "tribal knowledge" would be invaluable to the rest of us lone voices in the wilderness....

Gavin Bollard said...

The very best resource is Autism Empowerment, which is run by John Krejcha who is a Scoutmaster with kids on the Autism Spectrum. They have a facebook group and other online and offline resources.

Miguel Palacio said...

Gavin, Autumn,

Would you believe it, out of all things and put of all people, yes, I joined the military: The Air Force. My friends and family didn't have much faith in me and saw me unlikely to succeed, except for my dad and my grandpa on my mom's side. When my grandpa saw that I was interested, he, having been in the Army Air Corps, took the time to prep me for months for what was in store for me. He became an excellent career adviser and coached me and meticulously briefed me on all the pitfalls, including psychological warfare that I should expect. It was almost like a Vulcan mind-meld too. I was already good academically.

When I went to boot camp not only did I excel, I also began providing my fellow recruits with the insights my grandfather taught me. Would you believe it, 4 weeks into boot camp, the drill-sergeants call me into their office for a private chat. I do all my proper facing movements and report. They tell me "at ease" and to close the door behind me, so I did. Then they went on to say: "Airman Palacio, _we_ know that _you_ know what's going on around here, and we'd appreciate it if you simply went along for the ride, and we'd _certainly_ appreciate it if you kept it _under your hat_! Understood?!!" Of course, all I could think of was about how I was going to literally keep all of my preparation and knowledge under my physical hat, but once my sevondary post-processing kicked in I snapped to attention and yelled out: "YES SIR!" and "YES MA'AM!" After which they simply said "dismissed"

The rest of my boot camp was like gravy-train to me. xD

I was also extremely fortunate to have been picked, due to my academic standing, testing and two years if college, at the time, to become a Space Communucations Systems Operations and Maintenance Specialist! I still think it is the best career, but that's me. I also won the lottery to be assigned to a unit commanded by my Captain Merrill who instinctively seemed to understand precisely what I was all about and he knowing that my special interest was in electronic communications he had me work in an earth station and laboratory and design satellite communication systems and variants. I was extremely happy and he was extremely happy with me. I became sergeant way before my peers, which surprised many of the more "sociable" "smooth-talking" types. My captain believed in me. And I believed in him as well.

I am sure that I am not the norm, but I consider myself to have been very fortunate and this gave me a head-start in life towards a career which has been mostly very rich and fulfilling. A succession of favorable events, but I can't stress enough the matter of pre-warning and preparation for the hurdles that helped make this what it became.

Before picking a unit, whether it be scouts, the military or what have you, research, research, research! And speak to insiders. Pick their brains. I remember cold calling people, sneaking into secure facilities and speaking with them. I don't recommend the risky behaviour part, but I got my questions answered before I took the leap, and I knew what to expect, and how to take the good over the bad, and am grateful for it.