The Quest for Independence and Open Minds
Adolescent Social Issues, Scouting and Best Buddies
by Mary Wallan, et al
By Mary Wallan
It’s 10:00 p.m. and Troop 95 of the Boy Scouts of America, off enjoying one of their monthly trips, is settling into their tents for the night. From the tent next to mine I hear Joe, my 15 year- old son with autism, ask his tent mates if they watch his favorite TV shows (again). They answer patiently, make sure Joe’s sleeping bag is zipped and remind him how to get out of the tent if he needs to later on. At 10:20, they all drift off to sleep.
It’s a rainy Sunday at the mall. Joe and his Best Buddy, Heather, have arranged to shop, something they both like a lot. Joe’s headed to look at CDs, armed with ice cream money. Heather wants to buy a birthday gift. I tell them where to find me and they’re off, just two kids at the mall.
Routine as these moments are for parents of typical children, for the child with autism, they are huge social accomplishments. As has often been observed about people with autism, for them, social interaction is just like landing on Mars. Doubly so as they reach adolescence, with puberty compounding language and developmental challenges. And it’s no cakewalk either for their would-be friends, typical adolescents who are also adjusting to physical changes, discovering who they are and where they fit – at home, school and in the community.
Each group presents their own set of challenges. Teenagers like Joe have had lots of classroom dress rehearsal in social pragmatics, but few “live” opportunities to show their stuff. As for the typical teen - we are asking them to set aside their fear of the unknown and to mingle with kids who see the world quite differently than they do. It’s a tall order on both accounts. However, with the willingness to try and the right adult support, teens with special needs and their typical peers can meet in the middle. They can find common interests and have the shared experiences that builds confidence and relationships, and even have fun doing so.
A Scout is Friendly
Boy Scouts of America Troop 95 has afforded us valuable opportunities for peer interaction over the last 3 years. This active, 45 plus-member troop is always on the go, backed by adult leaders committed to including kids regardless of their abilities and differences.
The best opportunities for mixing developmentally disabled kids and their peers have often been the most basic parts of the scout program – campouts and community service. Kids are sure to find common ground when it comes to these activities. There is nothing like a patrol dickering over whether to buy Double Crème Oreos or S’mores; Lucky Charms or Cocoa Puffs for their campout menu to engage any adolescent. With meal planning, grocery shopping, packing equipment, Joe is right there with the rest of the guys. And it’s coming along with some of the tougher tasks, such as setting up camp, cooking and cleaning up (or more accurately, joining his scout friends in typical teenage task-avoidance). Likewise, Joe has worked successfully alongside his peers on service projects such as yard work, serving meals to senior citizens, packaging town reports and trail clearing.
The kids have their own good ideas about how to make social interaction work, as seen in various games that are the high point of the weekly meeting. The scouts sometimes give Joe first position in a memory game involving numbers so that he doesn’t need to remember a long series of numbers to keep the momentum going. On other games, kids will occasionally coach him on what to do so he can stay with the action.
While life in a large troop is not always smooth going, the basic commitment to including kids with disabilities is very clear. Our experience with Troop 95 has shown us that these scouts are trying to live up to “A Scout is Friendly” along with the many other goals for citizenship and neighborliness spelled out in the Boy Scout law.
Best Buddies – What it Means to be a Friend
Joe attends the CHARMS Collaborative vocational class, a classroom that is only in its second year at the high school. While the class spends much of its week on vocational and life skills out in the community, chances to get acquainted with peers at school have been limited. Overall, students at the high school have had very little exposure to their developmentally disabled peers. Parents and staff saw this as a great opportunity to introduce a chapter of Best Buddies, the international program founded by Anthony Shriver in 1989 that fosters one-to-one friendships between developmentally disabled and typical peers.
Best Buddies matched a small group of enthusiastic high school students with the six CHARMS students and turned the club over to them. The kids now organize monthly club get-togethers that feature ice breaker games, students sharing a favorite interest or possession, karaoke singing, going to a dance, game playing, with all of the above accompanied by plenty of food. With guidance from the CHARMS teacher, who makes herself available to help the pairs get over awkward moments, the kids are making progress. Typical peers are learning how to interpret behavior quirks and to bring their best buddies along the road to friendship. They are also hearing from families how much the CHARMS students are enjoying what is all too rare an opportunity for them – to have a buddy.
With his buddy Heather’s help, Joe is finding out about the give and take of friendship. To help Joe transition from one game to the next or from shopping for CDs to shopping for a birthday gift, Heather came up with a two-minute “heads up” for him. Joe is developing more awareness of a typical peer’s interests, making plans to go watch Heather at her softball games and finding out how her college visits are going. Along the way, the Best Buddies experience is teaching both kids the basic building blocks of having a friendship.
The Road from Here
Community inclusion of adolescents with developmental disabilities is a work in progress. Some days it is quite challenging to lack a blueprint that would smooth the way for Joe and all those with whom he interacts. But that also means the field is wide open for those of us involved in these early stages to find out what works best. Despite the frustrations, our road has been filled with many small, sweet victories for Joe. We are hopeful that with practice, Joe and his peers will progress to exchanges of friendship that are increasingly fulfilling for both. Thanks to Troop 95 boy scouts and leaders, the high school Best Buddies and others in the community, the efforts of many are paying off in greater inclusion opportunities for special needs adolescents like Joe and their typical peers alike.
(Mary Wallan and husband Peter are parents to Joseph. She is active in the Family Autism Center, Best Buddies and other organizations that work towards community inclusion and advocate for those with special needs. Since 1989, Wallan has been a public relations consultant serving energy, industrial, professional services and non-profit clients through her firm Mary C. Wallan Communications. Reach her at email@example.com. )
Scouting and Youth Members with Special Needs
By Peter A. Raskin
Boy Scouts can be a wonderful experience for youth with and without special needs. As an assistant scout master for Troop 95, I will share my experience and expectations concerning boys with disabilities and the scouting program.
The primary objective of Boy Scouts is to help all boys develop character, citizenship, and personal fitness. These objectives are achieved through programs that stress youth leadership, group activities, teamwork, community service, outdoor activities and skills training. Adult mentoring is an important component of scouting. Camping, merit badge achievement and rank advancement are the primary activities that inspire boys to participate in scouting. Our troop’s primary goal is that scouts will have safe fun with their peers while participating in Troop and Patrol (smaller units within the Troop) activities.
It appears to be an ongoing challenge for teenage boys to accept differences, especially in group settings. They tend to focus on their immediate needs and wants and are not innately aware of the needs and feelings of others. Nevertheless, the boys in Troop 95 are generally accepting of the two boys in our troop with special needs. Joe and Joey participate in all troop meetings held in a local church’s function room on Tuesday evenings and join the Troop in most outdoor activities (camping, hiking, skiing, swimming, etc.). The boys have some responsibilities within their patrols. Joe and Joey’s interactions’ with the other boys during meetings and activities is often peripheral and may be due to their specific disabilities. Joe and Joey seem to have fun and do not hold back the troop or their patrol. The boys are open to Joe and Joey’s participation in troop activities.
As an adult leader, I have specific expectations relative to scout advancement and participation. These expectations are scout specific, with or without special needs. Scouts achieve advancement depending upon their individual commitment to scouting. In the case of the boys with special needs, they participate and advance as long and as far as they and their parents’ desire. In our troop, boys with disabilities earn merit badges and advance based on their abilities. We structure merit badges and rank advancement requirements appropriately so the boys can be successful. While advancement is an important scout value, our troop does not mandate advancement for scouts with and without special needs.
My expectation is that parents of boys with special needs will participate in troop activities when necessary. My hope is that these parents will ask other scout leaders for help when necessary. Joe and Joey’s parents are active in our troop and their adult leadership is an important part of our troop’s success.
It has been a source of pride for the adult leaders and the scouts without special needs when Joe and Joey are recognized for their advancement. I believe the boys truly appreciate Joe and Joey’s participation in all the troop activities. Joe and Joey’s membership in Troop 95 has been a gift to all of the scouts and adults affiliated with the troop.
(Peter Raskin lives in Massachusetts with his wife and three children. His two teenage boys are active in boy scouts and Peter is an Assistant Scoutmaster for Troop 95. His financial planning practice has been getting in the way of camping and hiking since 1984.)
Great Expectations for Scouts
By Jordan Leef
I believe that scouts with a disability have the ability and the right to achieve as much as any other scout. Although the flight towards advancement for a scout with a disability might be a difficult one, it always seems to be possible and is usually much more rewarding for both the scout and the instructors. While working with Joe, who has autism, I soon realized with the help of his mother that he had the capacity and the willingness to learn just as much as the other scouts. However, Joe requires special one-on-one tutoring sessions and constant modeling in order to learn any new task or skill. Together with Joe’s mother, I was able to help Joe learn basic knot tying skills, fire safety, and the essence of the Scout Oath and Law. At times it was challenging to keep Joe on task, but when he made these small achievements, he reveled in the excitement and the admiration that he received from the rest of the troop. With the consistent encouragement and help from others, Joe has been progressing on the trail to Eagle at his own pace; I am confident in his future in scouting!
A culturally diverse troop yields culturally aware individuals, which is essential in today’s modern world. In Troop 95, everyone learns from a variety of people and learning styles. Some scouts learn to be more patient and compassionate while the scouts learn vital skills through a repeated modeling process. Ultimately, all troop members enjoy each other’s company and take pleasure in good clean fun.
(Jordan is graduating from high school and will be attending University of Pennsylvania in the fall. He is planning to study nursing and health care management. Jordan is an Eagle Scout and is a certified PSIA ski instructor teaching adaptive skiing at Waterville Valley. )
By Heather Fortuna
Best Buddies is a program in which a person not only learns and understands the meaning of friendship, but it is an opportunity that allows a person to discover attributes about themselves that were once hidden inside. This program gives people a whole new outlook on life and is an assurance that the littlest things in life have the biggest impact on people. From my Best Buddies experience, I have grown as a friend, sister, and most importantly, a person. I have learned to appreciate every day and to be thankful for everything that I am fortunate enough to possess. Being Joe’s friend has been a very pleasant experience for me, for I have become a better listener, yet at the same time a better speaker. I expect him to open up to me as much as he can and to feel very comfortable with me, just like I am expected to do as a Best Buddy.
When we started the Best Buddy program we were told the expectation was for us to be a friend in and out of school. At lunch, I go over to Joe and say hello and after school once a month there is a whole Best Buddy team meeting. Out of school I call and email Joe, as well as participate in activities with him, like going to the mall or having lunch at his house. However, the expectations we began with are certainly not something that I have to make time for. These expectations that I was supposed to fulfill have turned into something that I look forward to doing, and I enjoy every moment I spend in and out of school with Joe.
Best Buddies is a program designed to bring people with differences together to learn and understand one another. It teaches people to look beyond the surface of someone and find that the most important aspect of a person is his or her inner beauty. This program is extremely beneficial to both the Buddy and the person being befriended, for both people grow and learn to become the best person that they can be. Being a Best Buddy has been an amazing experience for me that will stay with me for the rest of my life. It has taught me so much about life and myself, and how the littlest things in life really do make the biggest differences.
(Heather is a junior in high school. She is on the varsity soccer and softball team. Heather is a member of Best Buddies and HOPES, Helping Older People Enjoy and Share.)
These articles appeared in the Spring, 2003 issue under the Expectations: Adolescence section