When is it a good decision to make a change to something that is “good”?    How do you provide challenging opportunities for your child without overwhelming them and causing a setback?  Is it ok to push your kid even if she prefers not to be?

It’s likely that most parents ask themselves these questions as they raise their children.  Have you??  But, typically, by the time most kids  turn 16 they able to participate in these decisions that impact her life.

My 16 year old is not typical.  She has difficulty with language, with social interactions, and with change.   So I feel compelled to intervene on all three areas of challenge.  I know she thinks (and says) I always push her.  But how could I not?  I know she has potential beyond what she would allow herself to achieve.  And beyond what any teacher, school administrator, camp director, or counselor would assume.  And since my vision for her is to be able to live an independent life, I feel I can’t go easy and always let her lead the pace of challenge.  (Oh right, what about her own vision for her life?   I am certain she too wants to become an independent adult.  In fact, this May she told me that “now that I am 16, I can make my own decisions.”)

Isabelle had gone to one summer overnight camp for 4 happy summers (age 12-15)  She had known 6 of the campers even before she started her first summer.  And then she expended her friendships over the years.  During the school year she joined the monthly camper get togethers in the New York City area.- this was the focus of her social life.

But after last summer’s camp season I started to think it was time to kick it up a notch for Isabelle.   While camp was good at developing social skills, I had always felt the activities were not challenging enough for her.  They did not work on developing any skills in athletics and they did not teach competition, deliberately avoided it.  (An aside – I always notice how programs for kids with disabilities seem to boast that they are non-competitive.  I think this is a disservice to our kids – they need to learn how to work to their best as individuals and as a team, get the reward of success, learn things don’t always go their way despite all their efforts, learn that there are in bounds and out of bounds, learn how to defend their “territory” and learn to be assertive – in a supportive setting.  I know most parents do not agree with me about this.)  I had made some requests to the director but he had a formula and did not seem open to making changes.

On the other hand this camp provided lots of opportunity for Isabelle to do what she likes best- to perform: talent shows, plays, guest band.  The director loves music and made that a hallmark of camp.

But as the girls in her cohort aged, the more socially mature and capable ones did not return, and were replaced with girls who had more had more significant social and behavioral challenges.

Last fall a friend told me her daughter had really enjoyed another camp last summer and so we got our girls together.  Once Isabelle heard that there was horse back riding at this other camp, she got excited.  Combine that with hearing who would and would not be coming back to her old camp in her age group, she was convinced to make the change.

One of Isabelle’s favorite TV shows is Phineas and Ferb an animated show about two brothers who plan outrageous activates during summer vacation.  To get out of a rut, Phineas often says “Let’s mix it up a little.”  It’s become one of Isabelle’s expressions (she scripts many of her Disney TV shows and movies and incorporates the scripts into her conversations – kind of clever!)

So we decided to mix it up a little. I enrolled her in the new camp for 7 weeks. Then I had to figure out how to get her to camp since it is nearly 3 hours north of Toronto.

Isabelle seemed excited and told her old camp friends she was not returning.   (They seemed disappointed.)

Campers post season get together – Isabelle last on left.

I started to have some concerns when I found the director resistant to introducing us to other campers from our area.  He was worried that if Isabelle did not connect well with one person that she would think that everyone at camp would be like that.  His comment surprised me because – he should know-  people with autism typically do not generalize.  I called with other questions since there were no parents I could talk to and he was put off by my questions.  Perhaps I should have listened to my gut – several times.  But I found I was on a path and did not want to go back.

After Isabelle was enrolled, we learned that the one girl she knew had changed her plans and was not going to attend the first session of camp.  That meant Isabelle would not know anyone at camp!  And no one at camp knew her. We never visited the camp or met the director – he just requested I send a video of her that I recorded and encouraged us to register.  I guess that was just too big a risk that I took.

In addition, I learned that, unlike her previous camp (and most others) this camp did not use a web service to post photos so parents could see camp life nightly.   They did not allow camper-parent calls and did not have scheduled parent-counselor calls.  So I would have no contact what so ever!

On July first  Isabelle and I  flew up to the Toronto airport and with some searching we found some camp staff waiting. I was not very impressed with our greeting, but I chatted with the counselors – trying to get more information about camp and helping Isabelle get connected with the staff and the one other girl camper waiting for others to arrive before taking a bus on to camp.  After about an hour Isabelle seemed ready for me to depart so we hugged good bye and I flew home (with huge anxiety.)

I called camp and got to talk with the counselor twice in the first two weeks; learning that Isabelle was having difficulty (but not clear why).  She was “running away” when she was stressed (typical) but they did not seem to understand her need to separate.  So I was able to convince the director to let Isabelle and her head counselor talk with her therapist from home.  (Her wonderful therapist told me she talks to one camper every night for 5 minutes!)

Camp is also supposed to be my vacation from my work of parenting a child with special needs.  But July was the most unrelaxing month  that I had had in a long time.  We got a few letters from Isabelle and they all said ‘I’m having tons of fun” but as I said, her language and writing skills are not very sophisticated, and she did say she was writing during her academic period  (ie, a counselor was with her).

Finally visiting day came.

Isabelle greets Dad at camp

We had a wonderful reunion with Isabelle.  And I got to see what really was happening at camp. We saw her in the camp performance, in the ropes, waterskiing, and swimming.

The director never made an effort to greet parents; I had to go searching for him.  And he was not very interested in talking.  None of Isabelle’s bunkmates were introduced to us and none seemed to acknowledge her.  The counselors, while very sweet, seemed inexperienced.  They did say they enjoyed Isabelle, that the rest of group was “very negative” and that they were surprised (!?) at how intolerant they each were with each other’s challenges and oddities.  All the girls were going home except Isabelle.  We spent the day watching her in various activities and in the camp play.  We did feel she was getting the challenge in activities that we had hoped for.  She was climbing, skiing, swimming and horseback riding.  The camp facilities were very nice but the food was horrible.

In the end, I felt that Isabelle was happy but I still questioned if the change was a good thing.

Paul and I made a “side by side” comparison.  Note “new camp” is only based on our one day visit.  Ratings:  1-5 (where 1= poor and 5 = outstanding)

Old camp New camp
Number of campers 140 boys and girls 10-18 300 boys and girls 10-18
Number of sessions  1 7-week session 2 sessions: 4 week and 3 week
Counselor/camper ratio 1 to 2 +/- 1 to 2 +/-
Transportation to and from camp Camp bus Plane (extra) and camp bus
Social hall 1 (dirty quanset hut) 3 (wood structure)
Dining hall 2 (poor acoustics) 2 (half the campers eat in a basement)
Cabins 2 3.5
Waterfront (s) 2 4 (3 separate for different activities)
Sports Fields 2 (did not see much use, no lines) 2 (did not see much use)
Food quality 3.5 (based on visiting day0 1 (based on visiting day)
Activity variety and quality 2-3 3-5
Opportunity for challenge 2 4
Actual challenge (w/o pushing) 2 3
Camper interactions 5 Saw none with my camper
Counselor skill 2-4 2-3
Communications within camp 4 2
Academics 4 2?  Did not get a report
Evening activity 4 ?
Opportunity for campers to perform 4 ?