NOTE: Our summer camp experience has been with Boy Scouts of America. Many of these tips could also apply to autistic youth in other scouting groups, such as Girl Scouts, American Heritage Girls or Trail Life USA.
Autism Preparations for Scout Camp
Those with autism often need special assistance to get ready for a week of Scout camp. In this article you will learn about the important autism preparations for Scout camp.
I did my best to help my autistic daughter prepare for her first scout camp experience. We used the BSA Scouts packing list. We asked questions about the camp. We relied on my Scoutmaster husband for advice.
It was only a few months since our inaugural troop for girls was founded in the newly structured Scouts BSA (formerly known as Boy Scouts). So, we didn’t have much preparation for attending camp besides learning some basic first aid skills and discussing what we should pack.
Luckily, we have two Scout leaders who have prepared their own sons for Scout camp for many years. It was a blessing that they knew their way around camp, the daily schedule, and merit badge requirements.
My autistic son did very well at camp as a Scout and now works there in the kitchen. I was reassured that my autistic daughter would be fine. Since she has different challenges, I thought it best to take extra measures to help her and the staff know the accommodations she needs.
The first thing a Scout learns is the motto: “Be Prepared”. That’s exactly the mentality required for a week at summer camp.
Here are important autism preparations for Scout camp:
Choose activities your youth is familiar and/or has a very keen interest in doing (STEM, Scoutcraft, aquatics, shooting sports, etc.). When engaged in an activity for which he or she has a passion or skill, this will alleviate some concerns about being in a new and strange environment. My daughter is very familiar with archery and chose to do that with the other girls in the troop. She ended up with the highest score in the class, of which she is extremely proud. She will now associate summer camp as a fun and positive experience and want to go again next year.
Consider staying at least one night (preferably the first) with your child. This is especially important for the first year of attending summer camp. I was able to figure out with what exactly my daughter needed help and to guide her to different activity locations. If your child has never been away from home for an overnight, then I encourage you to stay during the week. If you can’t sleep overnight, ask about Day passes so you can check in a time or two during the week.
Prepare an “Accommodations Card”. I created a short list of accommodations for my daughter so camp staff could communicate with her and meet her needs appropriately. I laminated the printed cards and handed them out to each person with whom she had regular contact. They were grateful to know to best help when she was frustrated.
Here is a template I made—you can alter it to fit your child’s needs:
Scout-Camp-Accommodations-TEMPLATE.pdf (17 downloads)
Let troop leaders know how your child handles frustration. Help them know the difference between an anxiety attack, a meltdown and willful disobedience. Create a “meltdown plan” (for safety reasons for self and others) for troop leaders—write it down on a card and laminate. If you will not be with your child at camp, establish a communication plan. For example, many camps have very limited WiFi service. Ask troop leaders when and by what method is best to communicate if there is an issue at camp.
Create a picture schedule and/or social story of the camp routines. Get the camp map and your child’s scheduled activities the week before. Go over this routine a few times with your child before leaving for camp.
Complete the merit badge worksheets for the activities your child will actually do at camp. It will be helpful to do these at least a week or two before camp. That way he/she can recall the information that is heard in the class itself and be able to answer some of the questions. If a class is heavy lecture (like First Aid), bring along a tape recorder; have a notepad to take notes (ask a peer to take notes is he/she can’t); or perhaps follow along in the Scout book.
Get ready for the swim test! For any aquatic activity, every scout needs to perform a swim test. Even if he/she has achieved “Blue Swimmer” status already, the camp requires each camper and adult leader to demonstrate proficiency—every year! This is where your child may have issues. I strongly urge you to practice the stroke and lap requirements in a lake before camp. (If going to a lake is out of the question, practice in a pool.) If your child is too overwhelmed with swimming in a lake and refuses to perform the swim test, then she/he cannot do any of the aquatic merit badges (kayaking, canoeing, etc.). If that’s the case, another merit badge or open activity can be chosen. Create a social story about what it’s like and what to do for the swim-test.
Make sure the shoes and boots your child wears are very comfortable. Wear them in before going (especially try to hike in them over rough terrain for at least an hour). Have back-up shoes that are waterproof. Water-shoes are fine to walk around in, but if it’s raining all day, your feet will stay pruny ALL DAY. Not good.
Did I mention there is LOTS of walking at camp? I mean, miles per day! And with a semi-heavy day bag on your child’s back all day. If you can prepare with a few hiking excursions or walking exercise, the better off. Bring electrolyte drinks and water to prevent leg cramps and dehydration.
Make the camp aware of any medical, dietary or sensory issues on the application. When you get there, alert the kitchen staff to food intolerances. Reserve an appointment with a physician as soon as your child is registered for camp. Be sure to pack the necessary medications and sensory items. If your child needs medicine for anxiety, ask if the troop leader can keep and administer those meds right in camp instead of at the nurse’s station. If you keep food at the camp, be sure to seal it up tight! The mice had a feeding frenzy on our snack food while we slept.
Don’t forget a sensory kit! If your child has ANY sensitivity to noise, bring those noise-cancelling headphones! The loudest setting was the dining hall. These staffers love to pump up the volume with their songs and skits and table-thumping. It gets everyone enthused but the noise—even for me—was almost unbearable. Bring any other sensory-calming item if necessary (like a weighted blanket for nighttime sleeping).
Have a designated peer helper (“buddy”) who is kind and conscientious. If they are in the same merit badge classes together, have them walk to and from those class together. They can even share a tent and help your child get a day-bag ready. Ask one of the scout leaders to assist in getting your child to a class if no one else in their troop goes.
Walk through the camp areas on the day of arrival with all scouts. Follow the route the week’s schedule, starting with the first activity, then the second, etc. Have your child follow along with the picture schedule and map you made beforehand.
Help your child prepare a day-bag. Create a picture schedule of all items that should go into it. Your child should have a small first aid kit, notetaking pads and pencil, swim gear, sunscreen, bug spray, a flashlight, and possibly merit badge worksheets to work on while at camp. Ask your scoutmaster or assistant to help check the day-bag every day to make sure all necessary items are included.
Show the Accommodations cards to every activity counselor. Explain to them how your child may react to unfamiliar requests, events or settings (no prior approval needed). Have a troop leader do this if you cannot.
Some challenges we encountered
With the rain and thunder they moved the kayaking class to the indoor dining hall. My daughter did fine with the transition.
When the sun came out, our leader suggested doing the swim tests at the lake. My daughter has been lake swimming before but freaked her out because she wasn’t expecting a test. It took her 30 minutes to put her suit on and come down to the beach. She needed time to transition and accept this inevitability. After much persuasion she managed to get in the water and achieve “blue swimmer” in order to complete her kayaking merit badge.
Hence, this is the reason I stress practicing the swim test in a lake or making a social story before coming to camp!
Another problem was her boots. While she never complained about them at home, she never had to walk in them for several miles, either! By the end of the first day, I was trading boots with her because she had blisters forming.
I highly recommend doing some preliminary hiking or walking in camp boots or waterproof shoes at home before wearing them at camp. Or bring along enough extra shoes that are comfortable.
Some positive highlights
My daughter loved the Pioneer Rendezvous. It was an after-dinner event with Native American flute playing (which my daughter got to try), kettle corn and root beer, leather-making and iron-branding, rifle demonstrations, atlatl throwing and just enjoying the company of others.
Take advantage of the optional fun activities in the evening. This will make the homesickness less and the willingness to stick it out at camp stronger.
I am very pleased that this camp goes above-and-beyond to make an unforgettable experience. Honestly, I wished—momentarily—that I was young again. I suppose I’ll settle for being an Assistant Scoutmaster…
The staffers were not only extremely accommodating but inclusive of my daughter. They welcome all kids with open-arms and are excited to have them be in Scouts…which is why I believe Scouts is so fantastic for youth on the spectrum.
Keep in mind that those with autism need special preparation for the Scout camp experience. With the right mindset and preparation, a Scout camp experience will not only be loads of fun but will help your autistic youth grow in self-confidence and self-reliance.