Monday, April 30, 2012

Order of the Aspie

This past weekend to me was a mixture of the Good and Bad about what scouting is within the context of the Boy Scouts of America.

This weekend my oldest son (12) attended the district’s annual Camporee. Camporee is where all of the BSA Boy Scout Units come together for two nights and have a day’s worth of summer camp jammed into one day. (Webelos can do an overnight as well and Bear Scouts can attend during the day.) There was tomahawk throwing, BB Guns, Black Powder Guns, Pistols (for Eagle Scouts), Archery, Search and Rescue Demo, Police Dog Demo, a rope course, balloon catapults, a Motocross Race to watch (first year they had this) and more. Then in the evening there was a campfire and an OA (Order of the Arrow) call out.

I was not able to attend the whole event, in fact I missed most of the day because Autism Empowerment was doing community outreach at the Southwest Washington Special Needs Conference and Resource Fair but I was able to make it back to see the boys cleaning up for dinner and making the campfire. Before the closing flag, skits and all of the rest, I had plenty of time to check-in with my son and find out that he had a really fun time. He didn’t shoot any of the guns but had a great time throwing the tomahawks, watching the races as well as joining in many of the other activities. Despite putting up the dining flies in the rain and the dark the night before, he was having fun and a good time.

                    His First Camp out in 2010 

Since crossing over into Boy Scouts a shade over two years ago, this was his third Camporee and it seemed like the best. During the campfire, we were both impressed and amazed to see different skits. Typically at many campfire programs the same skits are always being performed (Gravity Check etc.) but we were happy to see new ones we had never seen before.

Now it was time for the segue into what has been weighing on me since Saturday night, the Order of the Arrow callout and ceremony. I have written about this in the past and the one where I was most detailed was back in July of last year. Order of the Arrow and Autism. (link to that article). Since that first article on the Order of the Arrow, I have received scores of e-mails about how the Order of the Arrow serves as a negative for those with autism, Asperger’s or special needs because it reinforces a “cool group” mentality or “popular group” atmosphere.

Many times scouts who are on the Autism Spectrum have challenges in social environments and it can take a great deal of time and effort to develop the social skills to successfully interact with others. Although connections and friendships can be and are often made one on one, social integration among a group for kids on the autism spectrum takes place in a different way than one would see with kids that are considered neurotypically developing. While kids on the spectrum can and do make successful connections with others, in the beginning, it is often people with very similar interests.  The ability to know how much to share with others and when to share it and how to ask questions of others that shows an interest in developing a friendship is not intuitive to many on the spectrum and as such, some kids on the spectrum come across as seeming aloof or introverted while others may be right up in other’s space sharing about their special interest without properly reading social cues to know if the timing and length of conversation about a particular topic is socially appropriate.  As such, even though kids on the autism spectrum may be nice, friendly kids with the best of intentions, they can come across socially awkward, quirky or inappropriate without intending to.

Here is the purpose and requirements for the Order of the Arrow.

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.

I think most of us can get behind the purpose of the Order of the Arrow and the first three requirements are understandable.

Where I part with the the Order of the Arrow is on the fourth and last requirement. This last requirement DOES NOT follow the what I believe is the spirit of the scouting way and turns scouting into a popularity contest. While it is explained in advance to a group of 10 - 17 year old boys that voting should not be based on likability or popularity, that is exactly what it turns into.

Please do not think I am disrespecting the concept of the Order of the Arrow or that I have a personal resentment of the Order because my son was not called out.  This has been a long standing view of mine and it was crystallized this past weekend.  My son is the perfect example of why the Order of the Arrow is a popularity contest and is not based on the purpose of the Order of the Arrow.

I will be honest with you, yes, I am upset because out of 14 boys 10 made the call out (they all deserved it).  Of the six boys in his patrol, 4 were up for OA and he was the only one not to make it (talk about making for an uncomfortable social setting). Of the six boys that he crossed over with two years ago that were up for OA, he was the only one not to make it.  I am happy and proud of the other boys that did make it and it takes nothing away from them but this puts undue social pressure on the group and does not represent what I believe is the essence of scouting traditions.

My son’s example

My son crossed over into his current troop 2 years and 1 month ago and while in Cub Scouts, he earned his Arrow of Light and his religious knot. When he crossed over he was not even 10 and a half.

Rank Advancement - In four months in the Troop he earned his Scout and the Tenderfoot rank, after 11 months in the troop he earned his Second Class and then a month later about 1 year after joining the troop he was a First Class scout (age 11). By August he was a Star Scout (still age 11) and by the time of the elections, he had only one half of one requirement left for the rank of Life (age 12). He is on track to get his Life rank at the June Court of Honor (age 12).  
Leadership - For the first six months in Boy Scouts, he was the Patrol Leader, then was the Troop’s first Webmaster and then again served as Patrol Leader while he was a Star Scout
and at the time of OA Elections.
Camping - At the time of the election, he had over 25 nights of camping which included both summer camps that he could attend.
Service - At the time of the election, he had 44.5 hours of service recorded with the Troop and had attended 7 different Eagle Projects in support of the Troop. This was with less than 2 years in the troop. This does not even include the time he volunteers at our church as part of the tech team in support of the Jr High and High school program. In the past year, not recorded with the troop he has volunteered. He puts in about 2.5 hours per week (10 hours per month).
Attendance - He has attended about 90% of all of the Troop meetings in two years, he attends most all of the camping outings with the exception of the late fall ones, has made all of the Court of Honors since joining Boy Scouts and attended 5 different Eagle Court of honors and was part of an Honor Guard for one.
Other Awards - Completed all 5 parts of the 100 year Anniversary award and had earned 20 different merit badges at the time of the election. He was the number three top seller for both Popcorn and Christmas wreaths.

So what was he missing from the Mission and Purpose of the Order of the Arrow? Is it because he is quiet? Likes his privacy? Not loud and the life of the party? Not in the “in crowd”? Has sensory issues with food (which is not going to change)? Has some social issues? He is liked within his patrol and that is where he feels comfortable.

Not just a Personal Case

My son is just one story, but I have heard cases like my son from coast to coast where parents have scouts who are involved, they do service, they do camping but their scouts are on the Autism Spectrum and may be a bit quirky side but they represent the ideals and are not voted in because of the popularity perception.  I have heard a number of stories where the scouts that did not make the vote resulted where the scouts were being further stigmatized and being made to feel unworthy, unwanted and even to the point of being bullied for not being elected.

This whole process is doing exactly the opposite of the stated purpose of scouting and is tearing those down who are among the most vulnerable and susceptible emotionally.

What can be done?

Autism and Scouting wants to be part of the solution and not just the bearer of a subject without some type of solution. When this conversation came up a few months ago, a suggestion was made to have the voting be “blind” and that way the people are voting on the achievements and the qualifications of the scout in question. I had been thinking about this and this would be the way the troop could truly vote on who deserves the OA recognition rather that it be a popularity contest which despite its claims not to be, in the end is.

So how could this work? On the Ballot list the candidate by A, B, C, D, E etc and after each letter give the following information: Current rank, how long in troop, how many nights of camping, how many hours of service and any other honors.  The leadership would then have a list of the candidates name and the letter they are associated with. Yes, some may figure out who is who but this would give new scouts a chance to make a fair assessment of what each scout has done and if the requirements meet the ideals of the OA. Please let me know what you think about this way to do OA elections.

We would love to hear your ideas on what can help to make this a fair way to elect those that might have social issues but yet fully embody the Scouting traditions and ideals.

The Rest of the Story

So after all of my son’s friends were called up one by one who he was sitting next to, I asked how he was doing. He told me he was fine and that he was somewhat relieved he was not called up. I have to take him for what he said but I am not sure how much of that was real and how much he was just saying to protect himself. I told him that I was very proud of him and all that he has done in such a short time and gave him a hug. I think it was hard once all of his friends came back because they were making different references to what was going on and it really made the others feel that much more like outsiders. I was so proud of how he reacted and took it all in; that showed me just so much more why he should have been selected.

The next morning as we were driving home, we left early to make it home in time so he could do his volunteer work at our church. I again told him how much I Loved him and was proud of him. I then said, “I select you to the Order of the Aspie”. He looked over to me and with a big smile we high fived.


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  1. I totally agree John, the whole voting thing feels contrary to scouts. I can see where they're coming from but military leaders are picked by those above, not by their peers (I think). I would expect that scouts would follow a similar example regardless of how independent the kids are.

    In our group, the scout needs to approach their patrol leader just to receive a badge. I feel that this mitigates against the special needs scouts who are capable of earning a badge but are not capable of being organised enough to approach their patrol leader (another kid) particularly if they lack social skills.

  2. My son, who is on the Autistic Spectrum, was eligible for the OA within a year of joining, as he earned 1st class relatively quickly. For the election that year, there were 19 kids in our troop eligible, and my son was one of them. He has since become a brotherhood member and is on his third term as our Troop's OA rep.

    If he was not elected, I would not get on a soap box and say that a 75+ year system should be scrapped. You may consider it to be a popularity contest, but keep in mind that you do not need a large majority in order to be elected; you need a simple majority, and the scouts can vote for as many of the eligible scouts as they want. If a scout is not elected, it may or may not have anything to do with popularity, and more to do with whether the Scouts think a scout deserves the honor. There is more to being a good scout than completing merit badges, service hours and merit-badges.

    And even if it is a popularity contest, so what? The world is full of popularity contest, whether they are marketed as such or not. Why should childhood be any different.

    Just because a scout is on the autistic spectrum does not mean they should automatically be exempt from rules and regulations, or that they somehow are more deserving of ANYTHING.

    The phrase "special needs" does not mean that a child is more special than someone else, it merely means that they have needs that are different than those of "normal" children. Not everyone is special, everyone is unique; there is a big difference. Not everyone can write Beethoven's 9th Symphony.

    Also, airing your grievances in public is a bit rude, you are not being courteous, and "A scout is courteous"

    1. I think this is a very good question and not rude at all. It brings up a tough topic that many people might not want to face but it's out there.

      As a parent to two boys in scouting, one of which was elected to OA and one of which who wasn't, I wish the way the elections worked were also different and less alienating to the boys who are not selected. By the way, my one scout who was elected to the OA is not on the spectrum and the other one is.

      As a parent, it is terrible for my oldest son to keep being not called out while he continually advances in rank and participates in service activities. This is a young man who embodies scouting values. In fact, scouting is one of his special interests. As is common with many young men I have seen on the spectrum, he connects better with adults rather than peers. The adults embrace him wholeheartedly and I have been told by three separate individuals that they are very sorry he hasn't been elected to OA but there is nothing they can do.

      No, he isn't "entitled" to it but he sure does wonder why he can't get in? What did he do wrong?

      You see, his 3 years younger brother had less years of scouting, less camping, less volunteering, less service but was called out his first year eligible while my oldest was overlooked that year and each subsequent year.

      Can I just say that as a parent, it stinks? My son keeps asking what he did wrong, why he wasn't good enough, why isn't he a good enough scout? WHAT DO YOU SAY? Because the bottom line is for my son and many other scouts on the spectrum is that other peers just don't get them.

      This really impacts him emotionally. It stinks for my younger son too because he can't really enjoy getting in either because he knows in his heart that his brother should be there too based on merit. The system is flawed and of all places... in scouting... it should not be...

      Unfortunately, there are parents out there that aren't accepting either. They think we want a free ride for our kids when what we just want is acceptance and an environment where our kids can be safe instead of ostracized. Hey, if our scout (on the spectrum or not) doesn't meet or exceed the qualifications, no he shouldn't get in. But if he obviously meets, exceeds and goes beyond and doesn't get in after multiple times of being on the ballot while other scouts with less accomplishments pass him, then at some point, there should be a change...

      What do you say to a son who continually gets rejected? Seriously? I was hoping that scouts would be a safe place where he would be accepted for who he is but the reality is that it is still a popularity contest... and as you mentioned yourself, there ARE a lot of popularity contests out there. This one which should be based on honor and merit shouldn't be one of them.

      I don't believe the blogger was being rude at all nor was he suggesting to scrap the system. If I understand correctly, he was proposing to modify it so that voting was based on specific qualifications and actions of merit rather than the "name" of the person. Now I realize this doesn't take into account personality... but is OA supposed to be a personality contest?

      I love both my sons. They are both excellent scouts. That being said, the system to elect OA is flawed and unfortunately in groups where OA is seen as a status symbol and where the cool scouts get in and the not-so-cool scouts don't, we are not teaching acceptance.

  3. Thanks for sharing your experience with the OA election process. My son was called out last year. He had similar scouting credentials as your son. I was called out as a youth and have been involved again since getting my current unit started. When my son stood for election I was scared that he would be rejected. So, I guess I'm saying I understand your position.

    I know there is the long tradition of having youth in the troop elect OA members and half my brain can easily justify the tradition. That said, I've always struggled with the process. I'm not fond of non-members voting for membership. It does make us unique, but, Tommy Tenderfoot won't be able to cast an informed ballot. The elections can turn into a popularity contest. I've also heard of elections where the candidates figured out that, based on the number of scouts at the election, if they all voted for each other they would be elected because they held the plurality required.

    In the Tribe I grew up in the adults had the final say in who did and didn't get into the Order. In fact, I don't ever recall holding an OA election. But, that practice can be problematic because adults can have different interpretations of standards.

    I don't know the answer. But, I would encourage your son to stay involved and active as he is already. Focus on having fun and working on that advancement. I'm also an Eagle and I can tell you that is more important to me than my OA Sash. And, that part your son can control.

  4. The Order of the Arrow has and always will be based on character, not qualifications. A scout is selected not for what he has done but what he is expected to do. Troop members know each other best. They truly know someones character. I had to wait three elections before I was elected. Now I'm the only scout from that patrol that is still active in the OA or Scouts. Someone not getting elected to the OA is not uncommon. Just wait, there is always next year.

    1. I have to disagree with the statement that the scouts in the troop/patrol can truly know the character of a scout on the spectrum. Boys that interact with an ASD scout for an hour a week and a weekend a month may or may not every get a peak into the character of the scout precisely because of his social challenges.

      I'd also disagree that there aren't requirements. John listed them above. They might be minimum requirements but requirements none the less.

      Finally, I certainly agree with your statement about "what he is expected to do." But, how do we determine what a scout is expected to do? Well, I for one, look back at what he has done to see past patterns.

  5. Steven Sullivan, Order of the Arrow Adviser, Columbia GorgeMay 7, 2012 at 11:03 AM

    I’m sorry you feel this was a negative experience. After reading your blog it appears it was more of a negative experience for you rather than your son. Scouting is what you make of it. It can be a positive learning and growing experience for the young man or it can be negative experience…in my experience, this is usually do to the parental interpretation of what they feel the program should be. In my opinion, rank advancement, awards and honors are great and we like to see our sons reach all of those ideals but I believe they are only the method. It’s all about the journey. Scouting’s purpose is to develop men of character and good citizens. As we know, not all boys develop into men at the same pace and age. This is not a sprint to the finish. At 12 years old your son has many years of Scouting ahead of him and he will have many more opportunities to be elected to the Order of the Arrow. Not all youth get elected the first time or even the second time…it just isn’t that unusual to see 14, 15 and 16 year old candidates. I am the Chapter Adviser for your District’s Order of the Arrow program and have been for the last 12 years and I think you underestimate the youth’s ability select appropriate persons for OA. In my experience the selection to the Order of the Arrow is based more on the interpersonal relationships that develop between a young man and his troop-mates. In some cases young men are just not ready for the extra level of responsibility and the leadership expectations that go along with being an Arrowman. His troop-mates are usually the first to recognize that. Does this mean that it is a cool kids club, only for the popular kids? I don’t believe so. The Order of the Arrow is about opportunities and we do not intentionally try to exclude anyone. In regards to your son, I would encourage you to instead of dwelling on the negative, put a positive spin on it, stop dwelling on the fact he is different and encourage him to be happy for those elected and let him know his hard work and Scout Spirit will be rewarded with the honor when the time is right. I have seen many, many young men with social difficulties and special needs develop into fine leaders and Arrowmen given the opportunity to learn and grow at their own pace.

    That said, in general, the adult qualifications are different from the youth requirements. Adult selection is based upon their ability to perform the necessary functions to help the Order fulfill its purpose, and is not for recognition as an honor. Selected adult Scouters must be an asset to the Order because of demonstrated abilities, and must provide a positive role model for the youth members of the lodge.

    I would also remind you of the hard work our Arrowmen perform in service to our District. All of the crossovers, unit visitations, service projects, Webelos Woods, Sasquatch Search and Camporee ceremonies are a testament to their dedication to living the Obligation and their Scouting Spirit. Your reaction to the outcome of the callout, while understandable, takes away from those who work so hard to provide these services for the District. I hope that you can see tearing down others in order to build up you and yours is not in the Spirit of Scouting as well. As you are a Unit Commissioner I’m sure you can appreciate the sentiment. In the future I would invite you to speak with us directly rather than airing your grievances on the internet.

    Yours in Scouting,

    1. If I can, I think what the intention was to start a meaningful dialogue on this subject, not slam the Order of the Arrow. After reading all of this and my own observances, I think what is being said is that the boys (especially the youngest scouts) are not being educated on the criteria they should be using to vote on the OA member, not that their son didn't get in. In no way did I come away thinking the OA callout team was being criticized. Educating the voting troop members can only enhance not take away from the OA. This is an area that the OA working with the troops ahead of the election, and not just on election day can only make a good organization even better.

    2. Destinee Joiner, Den leaderJuly 13, 2012 at 5:09 PM

      I am not sure Steve that you can understand the perspective that John has on the situation. I however have a few more years before my son becomes of the age to go through an OA election, but I would hope that others would see my son's commitment to Scouting and his achievements more than his social skills. My son is on the spectrum and very social (or at least tries to be) but he doesn't always understand social norms and is sometimes looked at oddly. We have spoken with out boys about Trey's differences and that is they have questions to talk with us about them.
      I don't believe John did anything against Scouting he is trying to make Scouting better for a sect of boys who are often left out. Scouting is about building character and if a Scout keeps getting left out when he knows he puts in more effort and time for Scouting then we will lose lifelong Scouts for "popularity contests"

      Also he said nothing about the people who put in time for their district events, so using that against him isn't a valid point at all. John puts in a lot of time and energy that you may not know about in order to help Councils, Districts, Scouts, and Families to find ways to reach out and help Scouts with disabilities and their peers to coexist and understand each other to make stronger Packs and Troops.