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Information for Scouters

With the rise of cases in autism in America, especially in boys, there will inevitably be a rise in the number of Boy Scouts with autism. Many Scout leaders will find themselves with Scouts in their unit that are on the Autistic Spectrum. For many, this will be their first exposure to autistic children and a good understanding of autism is needed for the Scout leader to help the autistic Scout succeed. Just like all scouts, no two autistic scouts are going to be the same. If you have seen one autistic Scout, then you have seen ONE autistic scout.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a range of complex neurodevelopment disorders, characterized by social impairments, communication difficulties, and restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior.  Autistic disorder, sometimes called autism or classical ASD, is the most severe form of ASD, while other conditions along the spectrum include a milder form known as Asperger syndrome, the rare condition called Rett syndrome, and childhood disintegrative disorder and pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (usually referred to as PDD-NOS).  Although ASD varies significantly in character and severity, it occurs in all ethnic and socioeconomic groups and affects every age group.  Experts estimate that three to six children out of every 1,000 will have ASD.  Boys are four times more likely to have ASD than girls.

The hallmark feature of ASD is impaired social interaction.  A child’s primary caregivers are usually the first to notice signs of ASD.  As early as infancy, a baby with ASD may be unresponsive to people or focus intently on one item to the exclusion of others for long periods of time.  A child with ASD may appear to develop normally and then withdraw and become indifferent to social engagement.other common indicators include:
  • impaired ability to make friends with peers
  • impaired ability to initiate or sustain a conversation with others
  • absence or impairment of imaginative and social play
  • stereotyped, repetitive, or unusual use of language
  • restricted patterns of interest that are abnormal in intensity or focus
  • preoccupation with certain objects or subjects
  • inflexible adherence to specific routines or rituals.
Children with ASD may fail to respond to their names and often avoid eye contact with other people. They are often difficult to communicate with, and a Scout with ASD in your unit may need help from a parent or medical worker in communicating with you. They may communicate verbally or use sign language, a computer, written language, cards, or visual symbols. If a Scout with ASD is verbal or non-verbal, talk to the parents on ways to better communicate with him.

Many children with ASD have difficulty interpreting what others are thinking or feeling because they can’t understand social cues, such as tone of voice or facial expressions, and don’t watch other people’s faces for clues about appropriate behavior.  They lack empathy. Scouts with ASD that perform service projects that help others can help them better understand empathy and the need to help others. Working with other can also help them understand social cues better.

Many children with ASD engage in repetitive movements such as rocking and twirling, or in self-abusive behavior such as biting or head-banging.  They also tend to start speaking later than other children and may refer to themselves by name instead of “I” or “me.”  Children with ASD don’t know how to play interactively with other children.  Some speak in a sing-song voice about a narrow range of favorite topics, with little regard for the interests of the person to whom they are speaking. Many Children with ASD, especially those with Asperger syndrome are literalistic, and do not understand common expressions and figures of speech; i.e. "Hold your horses" might make them confused as they do not have any horses. They often will not understand humor or sarcasm and will takes a statement made in jest seriously. Autistic children may be targets of bullies and not be aware of it. 

There are many troop leadership positions that an autistic scout may be well suited for; not all scouts need to be SPL. Chaplain's Aide, Librarian, Scribe, Quartermaster and Historian are all used for advancement and an autistic scout should have no trouble fulfilling the duties. Scouts with ASD should be "Mainstreamed" and mixed in with the other scouts. If you have more than one Scout with ASD, try not to have them in the same patrol.

Many autistic children are prone to "Wandering" or elopement, and like to explore their surroundings. wandering related accidents are the leading cause of injury and death among autistic children. Special care should be made to secure aquatic areas from unauthorized access. Like with all scouts, proper training of an autistic scout for safety can go a long ways to mitigate the chances of an accident. Likewise, proper preparation on the part of the leaders can also lessen the chances of an incident. Have a plan in place for what to do if an autistic scout decides to wander. Have an "Autism Elopement Alert Form" and carry it with you on every scout outing. If a Scout with ASD does not know how to swim, strongly encourage the parents to enroll him in swimming lessons. Many BSA summer camps offer swimming lessons at summer camp in addition to the regular Swimming merit badge.

Discuss with the parents any questions or concerns that you have about an autistic Scout. Encourage the parents to be actively involved with their son in Scouting to help insure his success. Have a meeting with the parents every couple of months to discuss their son's progress and any concerns or questions they might have with advancement or activities. Familiarize yourself with the BSA regulations concerning disabled Scouts, and encourage the parents to do the same. When planning an activity or an outing, you might want to take a Scout with ASD aside to discuss where you will be going at what you will be doing in detail.