Thursday, May 26, 2011

Finding Leadership Positions for Scouts with ASD

Welcome back to the Autism and Scouting Blog and if you're here for the first time, you're welcome too!
I would like to thank everyone who has given feedback on the prior blogs and for also providing ideas for upcoming blogs.  There is a great deal to consider when we are supporting those with an Autism Spectrum Disorder.   I am personally grateful that I can help in some small way to assist in making the scouting experience better. 

Please help me to also keep our network of scouts, parents and leaders growing. The more people we have, the more ideas that we can share together the better it will be for all of us.  In addition to leaving feedback here, you can always post your comments on our Facebook Page - Autism and Scouting.
Now onto Part 2 of this latest Blog Trilogy:
Part 2 – Finding Leadership Positions for Scouts with ASD (below)
Part 3 – Preparing for more advanced Leadership (coming soon)
Before I go on, I wanted to thank Gavin in Australia. I have learned so much about the Scouting program down under from him and I when I can, I want to pass that information along as well, so we get other scouting groups outside of the United States coming online with us so that they can share in the information and contribute their experiences and feedback.
In my last blog, I talked about the use of the Denner and Assistant Denner system to start to build leadership for not only those scouts on the autism spectrum but for all scouts.  

In Australia, they have a program that is close to the USA's Cub Scout program but they call their leadership positions Sixers and Seconds.  The Sixer is the scout leader and the Second is the second in charge. They also use a visual wall poster to explain the duties of each. I think the visual portion is a great addition especially for those that have issues around communication and who tend to think more visually.  Many schools for special needs kiddos use visual schedules or storyboards and for those who have those issues, it would be one more fairly simple to implement accommodation that would help in the scouting experience.
Thank you again Gavin for the great ideas and for sharing. This is how we can all learn together.
Finding the right leadership position for anybody in scouting can be challenge as they advance from rank to rank. (In Boy Scouting within the United States, that would be a crossover from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts.) For those on the Autism Spectrum, overcoming the social piece and communication piece can be very hard but not impossible.
Within the US structure of Boy Scouts, taking on leadership positions within the group are required past the First Class rank (about a year to year and half after the crossover from Cubs to Scouts depending on how quickly the boy advances.) In Venturing and Sea Scouts, taking on a leadership role within the group is also required for advancement.  So finding the right fit for each scout is important and a scout that has an ASD should never be limited to what can be done just because they have Autism, however not all leadership positions might be realistic and in knowing your scout and empowering him to know himself, finding the right leadership fit is very important.
Like in life, scouts should start out with leadership positions in which they can build experience.  For those with Autism, it may take longer to grow more comfortable in embracing a leadership position, however scouts should certainly be encouraged. Their abilities and interests should be assessed to see what kind of a leadership position might be the right fit or a reasonable opportunity for them. Like any scout, they don’t have to wait until they are First Class if they feel ready to take on a role and it will still have significance because it will help them be more prepared for when the leadership will count toward rank advancement.
Each patrol will always need a Patrol Leader (or Venture Patrol Leader or Squad Leader) which will be elected by their peers in the Patrol once every six months.  The position of Patrol Leader does count toward leadership and the Assistant Patrol Leader don't officially count towards leadership rank requirements, the scout may or may not be ready for this type of position.
Knowing the strengths of the scouts and their special interest(s) will help in finding the right for them. There are multiple options available and here are some great positions that should be considered.  All of these positions can be used for rank advancement and will help build up a scout's confidence to take on higher level leadership positions.

Den Chief – This will give some of the younger scouts the ability to learn leadership and lead younger scouts at the Cub Level. It may be harder in some cases for those on the spectrum to relate to those in their patrol and this gives them a chance to learn how to lead younger scouts first.  It will also give the scouts a chance for adult association when it comes to working with the Den Leader to plan and execute the Den Meeting.  You may find that your autism spectrum Scout relates better to adults and younger scouts than his own peers and if this is the case, a Den Chief position with good Den Leader mentoring is a terrific opportunity to help a scout build confidence, respect from younger scouts and to gain experience.

Scribe / Secretary / Yeoman /Purser – This is a good position for those who are well organized. (In my experience, this may be an area of challenge for some spectrum scouts but if they're good note-takers in school, have good memories and can focus on areas of interest, this might be an opportunity to consider. They will keep record of what happens in the Patrol Leaders Council or the records on the ship (Yeoman or Purser).  This position will give the scout a closer look at how the unit’s inner circle of leadership works and how the leadership positions relate to each other.
Librarian - This scout maintains the Troops Merit Badge publications and assures that all materials are checked out and in properly.  They will recommend replacement when publications are outdated or in disrepair. This can be a great fit for many spectrum scouts who are rules-oriented.
Historian can be a fun and creative leadership position within a Troop, Venturing Crew or Ship.  This position collects and maintains the history of the unit and can spark a new special interest. They keep all scrapbooks and collect any articles that appear in the local press.  Another great way to introduce leadership and responsibility to younger scouts as well as pride for the unit they belong.
Order of the Arrow Representative is open to a First Class (or higher) Boy Scout who has been selected into the Order of the Arrow and completed his ordeal.  They will attend Lodge events and meetings and encourage other OA members to take part in OA activities. They encourage other scouts to attend campouts and older scouts to take part in higher adventure outings.  This leadership position requires a lot of communication and encouragement and those on the spectrum who are more expressive or working on expressiveness can use this position to increase their social communication skills and interacting with other scouts within the unit.
Quartermaster or Storekeeper – This position is a very important position within the scouting organization because this person makes sure the unit's equipment is in proper working order and is all accounted for.  For those who like to have structure (most on the Autism Spectrum) it allows them to organize and keep equipment in order. This position also works with an Adult Quartermaster so it allows them to have the support of an adult leader.  This is a very good starting point in leadership as well.

Chaplain Aide – This position makes sure that all of the outings have a religious program at each outing and will lead the unit in an opening prayer.  This position will also work with an adult leader so this position will give the scout extra needed support.  The scout will be able to practice public speaking and will get to associate with both youth and adult leadership.
Troop/Crew/Ship Webmaster – This is a new position within the Boy Scouts of America as far as leadership is concerned. This will allow those on the Autism Spectrum that have computers and/or technology as a special interest to really blossom. The position will also work with an adult leader to make sure that the unit’s website is up to date and it will also provide the unit with a positive communication and recruitment tool.  New technology such and having a unit Facebook Page or Twitter account will ensure that the unit stays informed and up to date with current outings or meetings.
The above leadership positions are great ways to prepare scouts for more advanced leadership positions such as Patrol Leader, Senior/Venturing Patrol Leader, Boatswain (Sea Scouts), Assistant Patrol Leaders, President or Vice President (Venturing Crews) , Instructors, Leave No Trace Trainer, Junior Scoutmaster or Troop Guide.

But what if my Scout is still not ready for leadership or he/she doesn't have the ability to do a leadership position because of his/her condition?
Scouting should be for all.  Try not to sell your scout short from experiencing growth, empowerment and leadership no matter what the scout's condition.  A place can be found no matter what level or ability the scout is at. Here are some suggestions if you feel your scout is not currently ready for any of the above leadership positions.
1 – Have a meeting with the scout and the unit’s leaders and if you feel comfortable with privacy issues concerning your scout, consider including the youth leadership.  

Regarding disclosure of your scout's condition to others, please see my 3 part blog series on Autism Diagnosis Disclosure:

When, Where & How - Part 1
Our Autism Spectrum Disclosure Experience in Scouting - Part 2
Autism Spectrum Disclosure - Final Thoughts - Part 3

In your meeting with leadership, explain your concerns and ask if the leadership think the scout is ready to take on bigger challenges. You may be surprised that they might be. It's natural to want to protect them out of love and concern for their well-being but it's amazing how often our children can surprise us and themselves with what they are capable of.
2 – Don’t worry if they are not perfect (who is?) or are not able to fully do the position right away.  If they are not successful at first, this will give them a chance to learn and grow.  There is adult leadership that should be in place to catch the scout if they need help and help foster his or her growth as well.
3 – You can ask if the scout could be an assistant to one of the above leadership positions.  They will not get "official" advancement credit for the position but if they can be an apprentice to that position and will give the leader in that position a chance to help and mentor another scout, it is a win-win situation.  Your scout can get an understanding of the position and what it takes to do the task and it gives the person in that leadership position a chance to teach.  This may not always be available but if you don’t ask if this could be done, you and the scout will never know.  I think most units would be willing to work with the scouts to make sure they can all be successful.
4 – If your scout wants to try out some smaller leadership positions within the confines of the Patrol,  you could ask the Patrol leader to set up a designated leadership assignment or area of responsibility within the patrol.  For example, one scout would be responsible to be Grubmaster (one who buys the food for a camping outing), one might be Skitmaster (one who makes sure that the patrol has a skit for each outing), one might be the patrol Chaplin who leads each meal or outing with a prayer and one might be Patrol Quartermaster (who takes the patrol box home after each outing and makes sure all of the equipment is in working condition and accounted for). This is something that would need to be worked out with the Patrol leader but would be a great way to practice leadership at the patrol level first.  
The Scoutmasters and Crew Advisor or Skipper are around to see the scouts be successful and of course parents who volunteer are encouraged and welcome.  I would imagine that any sincere and dedicated leader would be willing to work with each scout to make sure they can have a chance to able to experience the growth area of leadership and if it seems like your leadership may have challenges in this area, it might be time to step up to the plate and see how you can assist.

I realize that I have written this in a style that may seem to be for parents but if you are a scout, scout leader or caregiver happening into the blog, I hope you will find benefit here as well and tailor it to your own personal situation.
I would love to hear what worked for you. For those parents here, what has worked for your scouts?  What has worked? Any suggestions or anecdotes you wish to share?
My son (who has Aspergers) just recently made the rank of First Class (back at the end of March) and loves computers.  He is the current Webmaster for the troop we are in and considering the boys range in age from 11 - 18 and he is still 11 and is now interacting with boys in a wide range of ages and levels of social maturity, my wife and I are very proud of him taking on this role.

He loves the position and has really stepped up and is coming out of his shell. In meetings now he makes announcements about the website and asks people to send in photos. He takes his digital camera to scouting events and takes photos for the website. This has made scouting more exciting and enjoyable for him, while at the same time teaching him more responsibility and leadership.  It has also allowed him the opportunity to verbally and socially interact with boys in his troop of all ages who he might not have otherwise been as quick to feel comfortable with.
The last part of this Trilogy will deal with transition to higher leadership positions and preparing Scouts for that next level of leadership.
Questions and comments can be left on this blog, the Autism and Scouting Facebook Page or you can e-mail me (John) at
Support Your Scouts!


  1. Thank you John, I'm learning heaps about the BSA from you.

    One thing that might work (I've done it in cubs) is to have joint leadership. Sometimes a leadership position is too difficult for a single scout to do, particularly if they have ASD.

    Instead, you can assign a position to two scouts to do co-operatively. That way they can watch and learn from each other - and also support their joint leadership.

  2. My son has HFA and is 9. I would like my son to be in scouts but I am a single mother with two other children and I cannot unfortunately step up to volunteer in a leadership role. I can volunteer for some things but not everything. I would like to know what weight, educational, health and fitness requirements are there for assigned leaders? When I visited a local meeting I saw the men involved as all being moderately overweight to obese. A couple are not the brightest bulbs in the bunch and I don't mean to be rude but it is what it is. The unofficial nickname for this group is the "Tub Scouts" because of tubby bellies. I had to explain to my son and he did not find it funny. I find it embarrassing and hope that the men are working on their weight issues if they are going to also teach children health and fitness. Are they required to? The kids are a group from all over our rural area and kids with potential. A couple of the adults are a bit odd and probably HFA too. (Not passing judgment just laying it out) and we do not have more than one choice to go to.

    I don't want to offend the men but my son runs, climbs and bounces. How can I be assured as a mom and also a responsible individual that if I let my son go on a camping outing or a hike or an outdoor trip that the staff can physically take care of him and be able to catch him if he runs and needs to be caught? I don't want my son to be a "tub" scout. I want him to be as healthy as possible. What kind of health and fitness requirements are there for leaders? (Not volunteers?) In our area, I don't see that there are. Is a college degree (or equivalent) required for top leadership (not parent volunteers) or some sort of intense training with certified testing? (Not just a day "leadership" seminar, but something like a college course?)

    Before I send my son into the campfire, I would like to know these things. Thank you. How does your group handle this?

  3. Hey Gavin,

    Thanks so much. I think here is the states,it would be up to each Troop (11 + level) for leadership.

    Leadership changes every six months (or should)for most troops so it allows for leadership. I think a mentor or co-leadership position might work.