I don’t know whether the Most Improved Camper Award is used this same way universally across time and place. I know that Rachael, my wife, was coincidentally a counselor at Girl Scount Camp in the 1980s and she says they used the same award for this purpose.
I went to Summer Day Camp every year, on the poor kids plan. Our birthmother would drop us off at the Girls Club early in the morning, where I would play with a very old, very out of tune piano until the bus came to drive us to camp for the long day.
When I would get in trouble, it wasn’t for things I did “on purpose” to cause problems or harm or anything. I remember one day vividly, because I really hate how it all went. I’ll share that one as an example, one of a thousand times I got in trouble.
What Being “The Bad Kid” Looked Like
Looking back, I realize that the counselors must have been talking that day about how nobody ever sat with me on the bus. They had decided that one of them was going to deal with me and even sit with me on the bus. And there was one counselor who had been nice to me recently. I liked her. She chose to give it a shot.
Cool! I felt SO excited when she sat next to me that I began swinging my legs back and forth really fast. We were riding on a school bus, and I was six years old, so my legs didn’t touch the ground and I was awkward anyway. Back and forth I swung my legs excited to have bus company until – without intention – my foot kicked the back of the counselor’s foot.
That motion caused her shin to hit the underside of the bus seat in front of us.
I can tell you today that I didn’t mean to kick her, but that really doesn’t matter, does it? Intent versus impact. The reality is that I had caused an injury, to the person who had chosen to reach out and try to be nice to me. It did not matter whatsoever that my legs were swinging because I was so excited to have company on the bus for once, and I didn’t know how to regulate all of that.
What mattered was that I had effectively kicked a counselor, causing a bruise to her shin.
That incident led to some paperwork, and nobody ever sat with me on the bus again, and I mean for years to come.
I hated everything about how that all went down. She was mad. She mumbled some version of “To hell with you!” which devasted me, because I had been so excited a moment before, when I thought she liked me. I didn’t want to hurt her shin, and I hadn’t meant to do so. I was clumsy, and nervous, and overstimulated…
How an Autistic Kid Did Summer Camp
I didn’t get along with the other kids in summer camp. I tried. I couldn’t figure out the rules. I also thought they all hated me, and they might have, and I’m pretty sure the counselors really did hate me. I somehow caused a lot of trouble, such as in the “bad kid” example, when I didn’t really mean to ever cause trouble.
But I was pretty good at sports, arts and crafts, music, and swimming. The kids would want to pick me for their teams if they didn’t hate me too much, because I’d help their team win whatever we were doing.
There were some camp games I thought were horrible. I remember one was called “Bring Me” – in that one, the whole camp would be divided into three teams. Then, the boss of camp would say “Bring me (whatever)!” and each team would run around to find that specific thing, and the first to bring it to her would win a point.
That’s fine, except I found it absolutely terrifying that she might say “Bring me [something that Erika is wearing]!” because these kids would absolutely tear the article of clothing off the person to bring it. Like, for real. That happened. I had seen it happen.
I had several meltdowns about this game, and I agreed to play the game, stop crying, and somehow handle all of my feelings if and only if the boss lady agreed to not call out clothing on my body.
And then, she called out something I was wearing. The kids jumped on me, ripped off my clothes, and I had a fricken meltdown like I absolutely felt was warranted.
I’m 49 years old while writing this account, and would still deem such a meltdown warranted. The things we expect of children are so unfair sometimes.
Alas, these are the things that got me in big trouble. And I really did not like being in trouble. It meant communication went home to my birthmother, who was the opposite of love and kindness herself and so that wasn’t great either. It was a traumatic day followed by a traumatic evening, no safety anywhere.
Long story short? I learned how to keep it all together, ish, minimizing meltdowns, tolerating things I don’t think I should have had to endure, and basically learned how to “Suck it up, buttercup!” as is the goal of so many behavioral interventions for autistic kids, right? Success!
Most Improved Camper
By the end of the following summer, when the awards rolled out, I got the end-of-year award that has the most heavy meaning of them all: The Most Improved Camper Award. As Rachael tells it, back then they’d use this award to celebrate the kid who acted up less than they used to, and that was absolutely me! Hooray!
Why Did I Share This Story?
Hopefully, this illustration can get the reader thinking about goals, about what really matters, and about what it means to reward and punish observed behaviors. Because you know what? I was actually a good kid, with a good heart. I needed some supports, which I never got. That’s the point for intervention, friends.
Most Improved Camper Award? That’s akin to any other point-based, token-based, reward-based, compliance-based behavior modification or intervention or treatment that an autistic child has to endure.
And so you just read my story. What do you think? Was this indeed a fabulous success worth celebrating?
How do you conceptualize progress and success? Would it have been better for someone to have communicated with the child in this story, to have found out what they needed? What may have helped them regulate their emotions? What supports might have been helpful? Those things would have decreased or removed the behaviors that nobody wanted anyway, right?