Friday, July 1, 2011

Order of the Arrow and Autism

Hello! I hope all are having a good camping season so far. June was a very busy month and now that July is upon us, camping season is in full swing here in the US.

In the past month the Facebook page, Autism and Scouting hit 63 likes and the Autism and Scouting Group page now has 134 likes. The goal is for the Facebook Page to reach 75 "likes" before the end of July. Any help in spreading the word would be very welcome. The more people we have visiting and exchanging ideas, the greater breadth of knowledge that can drawn upon to provide the very best situation for all scouts and scout families.

About two weeks ago while I was away, a friend in Australia posted a link to a blog that he had come across in which the author had concerns about a program that is associated with the Boy Scouts of America called the Order of the Arrow and how it related to her son who has Autism that had not yet been chosen for this honor. Here is a link to her blog:  Do Not Sell My Son Short

The post was very thoughtfully written. It generated a lot of comments and brought up related subjects about fitting in, popularity and acceptance within Boy Scouts.

History of Order of the Arrow

The Order of the Arrow was established in 1915 in Philadelphia, PA by Dr. E. Urner Goodman and Carroll A. Edson. In 1922 the Boy Scouts of America made it an official experiment and it was approved as an official scouting program in 1934. In 1948, the Order of the Arrow was recognized as the BSA's national brotherhood of honor campers. In 1998, the Order of the Arrow became recognized as Scouting's National Honor Society when it expanded its reach beyond camping to include broader service to Scouting and the community.

Purpose of Order of the Arrow

As Scouting’s National Honor Society, the purpose is to: 
  • Recognize those who best exemplify the Scout Oath and Law in their daily lives and through that recognition cause others to conduct themselves in a way that warrants similar recognition.
  • Promote camping, responsible outdoor adventure, and environmental stewardship as essential components of every Scout’s experience, in the unit, year-round, and in summer camp.
  • Develop leaders with the willingness, character, spirit and ability to advance the activities of their units, our Brotherhood, Scouting, and ultimately our nation.
  • Crystallize the Scout habit of helpfulness into a life purpose of leadership in cheerful service to others.
Requirements for Order of the Arrow

1.– Be a registered member of the Boy Scouts of America.

2. – Have fifteen nights of camping within the past two years. Of the fifteen nights, six nights must come from long-term camp consisting of six consecutive days and five nights of resident camping.

3. – Be a First Class or higher in rank.

4. – The scout must be elected in a special annual election by 50% or greater of the voting scouts present at the meeting.  A majority of the troop members need to be present for this election to take place.

If you take a look at the first three requirements, they do make sense. Being a member of the Boy Scouts of America is obvious. Since Boy Scouts as a group are dedicated towards camping and the outdoors, the camping nights requirement is important and shows a scout's dedication.  Once a scout reaches the level of First Class, he has had experience with many scouting skills and should have a decent understanding of what it means to be part of the Order of the Arrow.

The fourth requirement is the one where things start to get tricky and brings about questions about popularity, acceptance and potential rejection.  This requirement deals with the selection and voting process and is where the blog I referenced above (Do Not Sell My Son Short) took issue.

The selection process is unlike any of the other requirements for advancements and awards within Boy Scouting.  For rank advancements, the Boy Scouts of America have very specific requirements that all scouts have to complete in order to move forward from Scout to Tenderfoot, Second Class, First Class, Star, Life and even Eagle. If a scout completes each requirement and passes the Board of Review, he advances.  For merit badges, if the scout follows the requirements and completes them, he will be awarded the merit badge.  For all of the other awards, specific requirements are spelled out.

Elections do take place for Senior Patrol Leader and Patrol Leaders but these are considered leadership positions and they do rotate every six months.

The Order of the Arrow and its subsequent membership is the only award or honor that is elected in scouting.

Is this fair to those who may not seem to fit in but have met all of the other requirements? If a scout with Autism or Aspergers (or any other disability) does not relate to his peers but meets all of the other requirements, is it fair that they are not selected by their peers for this honor? Does this promote exclusion versus inclusion?  Is it a popularity contest where only the ones that are liked most get selected?

On first glance it does seem on the face of things that those who are popular would have an advantage being elected and that those boys that have challenges with social skills and peer relations might be at a disadvantage getting elected by a majority of his peers.  That being said, once you take a closer look at what it takes to qualify for Order of the Arrow selection, there are many chances for a scout to learn some life lessons and learn how to better relate to those around him.

In order to get to the point of being placed on the ballot, each scout must have one summer resident camp as well as ten additional camping nights with the troop. This gives the scout a chance to get to know the members of his patrol as well as other members of the troop.

In addition, the scout has to have achieved the rank of First Class Scout. In most troops and scouting outfits, the scout would have to be in the troop for over two years (unless transferring in from another troop). This again should give the scout time to get to know his troop mates and try to bond with them.

Bonding and learning how to relate to others within the troop is a skill that often takes more time for a scout with autism. Achieving scouting advancement and honors doesn't have to be a sprint.  Your scout doesn't need to compare himself to his peers.  He should determine his own goals and work on them in his own time.  It can be a slow jog or walk.  It can be a marathon.  It can be a 100 yard dash.  It really depends on the scout, his abilities, his personal situation and his goals. 

If the scout and scout's family know about the Order of the Arrow program in advance and have an understanding of what the requirements are going in, it will give the family a chance to work with their scout, his patrol mates and leaders to help improve the social skills if becoming part of the brotherhood is important to him.  

Just like so many other things in the life of a person with Autism, having transition and understanding what this process is will give both the families and scouts the ability to understand what needs to be done. Then a plan can be put to together that will help the scout obtain success. Going to the scoutmaster ahead of time with concerns would be a helpful thing as well because it could bring to the attention of the Scoutmaster a situation that could benefit the whole unit. The Scoutmaster might be willing to help the scout to better integrate within the unit or at the very least have an older scout buddy with him to help the scout in need try to better relate to his peers.  

If you are a Scoutmaster or any part of leadership it is important that things are explained to the Troop in advance of vote. Explain that each scout can vote for as many people as he would like and the vote should not be based on popularity but rather if the scout is representing scouting traditions and values.  The scouts that should be voted in should be voted for because they are maintaining camping traditions and spirit, promoting year-round and long term resident camping, and providing cheerful service to others. The Scoutmaster should never try to influence the vote one way or the other and needs to check any favoritism at the door.

Like in life, things may not seem fair but if you look at the whole picture and try to find the positive things, you will find that you have made lemonade vs. lemons.

I would love to say that all scouting units are accepting and live by the Scout Oath and Law but I have learned early on that is not always the case. I have been in contact with scouts and families that have run into Scout leaders that don’t know how to work with kids with special needs and I've heard about units that don’t take action with bullying scouts (future blogs).

If things do not work out with the election of your son to the Order of the Arrow, use it as a teaching tool for all. Work with the leadership and work with the scout for that next election. A good leadership team what’s to see all of the scouts be successful. If things are really bad in your unit then it should be considered to move to a different unit.

The Order of the Arrow is a big honor and is an honorable unit within scouting. It may take some extra work for those on the spectrum but it is something that each scout should be encouraged to aspire to.  That being said, being in the Order of the Arrow does not determine a scout's worth, just as his diagnosis of autism does not define him.  Your unconditional love and support of your scout throughout his scouting years will play a key part in his success and happiness. 

Happy Scouting


  1. My son, a Life Scout, has not only sealed his Brotherhood but is Vice-Chief of his district. All while dealing with OCD/Asperger's. He was elected to OA his first year of eligibility because his peers recognized his accomplishments. He tends to be reserve with his troop mates but for the most part respected for his accomplishments. In all honesty, the OA is more a haven for him then his troop has. OA is for the hard core scouts. Troops have a mix of those who are dedicated and those who are not. So he feels more at home within the Brotherhood. I am sorry for the scout that was not elected but don't blame the OA, blame the troop for the encouraging a popularity contest. It is bad for the troop and it is bad for that OA Lodge for they are not holding to the ideals of the order.

  2. Hello There,

    Thank you so much for all of your support and your comments. I agree that the Troop needs to take some ownership if you will for not explaining the OA and allowing for it to come to a popularity contest. Thanks for your thoughts.