My son, Peter, earned his Second Class rank at Boy Scout summer camp last summer and three merit badges along with it. But that was not his greatest achievement, in my opinion.
Peter has Asperger Syndrome, and has always faced challenges in handling new situations and adversity. His scouting experience has helped him – and us – more than we could have hoped, both in socialization and adjusting to change, as well as giving him tremendous pride in his accomplishments.
So when he did not pass the swimming test on the first day of camp – even though he is a very strong swimmer -I thought it would be a very long week. He had planned to work on another aquatics badge, which he now could not do.
Fortunately, I was able to remind him of the calming techniques he has learned in a private conversation. He had not been in the water since the previous summer, and was in fact having a difficult swim after the long layoff.
(Although I am not a formal leader, I accompanied the troop to camp as a “registered adult.” I had volunteered as a “leader” so that my presence would be “typical,” but my main role is helping Peter manage not only his scheduling, but also his anxieties and emotions.)
After he calmed, I persuaded him to attend the instructional swim sessions in the afternoon – and he passed the test the first time he tried again. He also agreed to select another badge to work on, to make the most of his camp week (and the replacement badge, Nature, was the first one he finished).
Staying in the Pool
But despite his love of the water, and natural ease when swimming, he would not go to the “swimming hole” with his peers. Jumping off a rock into a local creek was one of the highlights of this particular camp. But each time I asked if he wanted to go, Peter always repeated, “I prefer to only swim in the pool” (with a solid floor, rather than a muddy stream bed).
By the end of the week, he had cooked his own lunch to finish his Second Class rank requirement, and completed his Computers and Photography badges. I was also proud that he had become comfortable just hanging out with "the guys" around the campfire, perhaps the most difficult task he faced. (“Dad, you can go back to your tent now!”)
So I thought the swimming hole was worth another try. Since Fossil Rock was located at the end of a steep hike of over a mile through the woods, I suggested that we at least go there when the boys next went, just to see what it was like – he and I had loved hiking together long before he joined Cub Scouts. At the suggestion of another adult, we went immediately after his swim class, so that he had his swim trunks and goggles with him.
Better than the Birthday
What happened next was the highlight of my summer – even more than spending my 50th birthday at camp with my son, without the intrusion of video games and the Internet.
As we approached Fossil Rock through the woods, we could hear the typical laughing and shouting of boys at play for at least 10 minutes, but could not see anything through the thick growth. The noise, and our anticipation, built as we descended further and further into the woods.
We suddenly emerged into the brilliant sunshine of the clearing at the swimming hole, and were overwhelmed by the noise and exuberance of teens at the end of a week on their own. Peter immediately turned to me, and said the words I will always remember, “Dad! I’m going in!” And that is what he did (after changing back into his suit behind a tree).
He was so excited that he even forgot to take off his watch. It became waterlogged – a big deal for a boy who perseverates on time. I gave him my watch for the last days of camp, and called my wife, who was able to get another at Wal-Mart before we got back to camp. I immediately told Peter, so the rest of his week wasn’t ruined worrying about the time.
The $5 replacement cost was well worth seeing the joy and excitement in my son’s face, and the pride I felt in Peter's growth, when, for a few moments, at least, the boy in him “washed out” the autism.