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Helping A Scout With Autism Be Part Of A Troop

Harold Stuart
Unit Commissioner
Mene Oto District
Santa Clara County Council, BSA

 

Many scout leaders face a difficult dilemma:  “How do I help a scout with autism be a part of my troop?”  A growing number of children, mostly boys, are diagnosed with autism each year.  As a scout leader you can make a significant difference in the life of an autistic scout and his family by learning more about autism and modifying your program so that the scout can be included in your troop’s activities and advance in rank.

Being a leader of an autistic scout can be a very rewarding experience.  Some simple steps that you can follow in this process are learning about autism, making appropriate adaptations for an autistic scout, and working with the scout’s parents to help the scout succeed.

Although this article is specifically targeted toward scouts with autism, many of the suggestions given here would equally apply to scouts with other disabilities.

Learning About Autism:

There’s a lot of information available about autism nowadays, and much of it is worthwhile.  Some good information sources are:

  • The National Institutes of Health has a good autism website.
  • The September 2006 issue of Scouting magazine has an excellent article on autism.

There are similar websites for other disabilities.  You should start with sources known to be reliable, such as the NIH site above, and do additional research from there.  This will help you avoid other source of information that may be less trustworthy.

The most important source of information about your autistic scout will be the scout’s parents. People with autism have mild to severe physical and mental disabilities, and each autistic scout will be affected differently. The scout’s parents will know him best.

Making Appropriate Adaptations For an Autistic Scout:

Once an autistic scout joins your troop there are several things you can do to help him succeed.

  • Set ground rules for how the scout will be treated in the troop.  Bullying, teasing, and mocking of a fellow scout shouldn’t be tolerated, even with scouts that don’t have disabilities.

Example:  One scoutmaster talked to his scouts a week before an autistic scout became a member of his troop.  He explained a little about autism to the troop, and asked for their help in making the scout feel welcome.  He also explained how the scout oath and law applied in the situation.

  • Structure your troop meetings to avoid surprises whenever possible.  Changes in schedule and routine are difficult for most autistic individuals.  Communicate any changes in advance, however, do not use exact times or you may be held to them.

Example:  if an autistic scout asks when a meeting will be over, a good answer is “When we have the closing ceremony,” not “8:30.”  This gives you flexibility in case the meeting runs short or long.

  • Plan your activities so that at least some of them can effectively include a disabled scout.  Remember to include the disabled scout in as many of your activities as possible, but work with the scout’s parents to see what accommodations can be made to help the scout feel involved.  Remember, however, that the autistic scout should be included in activities, but not dominate them.

Example:  A scout troop was working on the cycling merit badge.  The autistic troop member was not able physically to handle the trip, but he was able to help the troop plan a good route.

  • Be flexible in advancement.  Remember that Scouting serves the boy – the boy does not serve scouting.
  • All scouts need to fulfill each advancement requirement to the best of their ability.  Some adaptations in the methods of scouting can be helpful, however, in helping the autistic scout succeed.

 Example:  An autistic scout with severe verbal communication disabilities would write out his answers for some merit badge requirements.  The councilor was flexible and accepted written answers where a verbal answer would have been more common.

  • The council advancement committee must approve significant changes to a scout’s advancement program.  It’s best to work with the scout and his parents so that modified requirements are challenging for the scout, but not so much so that the requirements are impossible.

Example:  An autistic scout had severe problems with camping.  His camping requirements were minimally modified to make the requirement possible for the scout to complete.

  • Do not exclude the scout from leadership assignments.  Not every scout needs to be a senior patrol leader, but all scouts can contribute in a meaningful way to the success of the troop.

Example:  One autistic scout served as Chaplain’s Aide for his troop.  He also served as the Troop Librarian.  Theses leadership assignments were adequate to fulfill the leadership requirement for the Eagle rank.

  • It may be useful to have one assistant scoutmaster who mostly works with just the autistic individual.  This may especially be helpful if the scout has behavioral, medical, or other special needs that could make it difficult to properly work with the remaining scouts

    Example: The father of one autistic scout attended every campout because his son had extreme difficulties adapting to the changes in his environment that camping required. 

Conclusion:

Working with an autistic scout is an opportunity for service.  Your tolerance and acceptance of a disabled scout will be a chance for all members of your troop to grow.  You will find that you learn as much from the disabled scout as he learns from you.

Helping a disabled scout is a growing experience, both for you and the scout.  It’s important to remember, though, that that the only adaptations that you can guarantee to be completely successful are those you make within yourself.  The scout oath says it this way:  “I will do my best.”

As Scouts, we remember that we are “to help other people at all times.”  Helping a disabled scout helps us make this philosophy part of what we are, and helps our scouts become the kind of men we want them to be.

 

About the Author:

Harold Stuart is the father of an autistic scout who earned the Eagle Scout Award.  The examples in this article are based upon research and personal experience, both with his son and with the excellent scout leaders that helped him succeed.  You can contact Harold at harold (at) haroldstuart (dot) org.