Jack, my 8-year-old autistic son, has never had intensive therapy. The early intervention therapists missed him the first time I had him evaluated, he didn't get diagnosed until he was almost five, and by then he was in entrenched in a system that said he didn't need therapy to succeed at school.
What the system didn't see, or didn't want to see, however, is that my son does need therapy to succeed in life. Those two things are very different. As soon as I was done fighting for a diagnosis, I put him into speech and occupational therapy and found him a social skills group.
Still, he has never had anything more than weekly one-hour (or less) sessions. I always heard about kids who got many hours of early intervention therapy when they were very young and was envious, regardless of whether that type of therapy or the timing was right for my kid.
The envy would continue when I would see kids at therapeutic private schools (even though I know that my Jack is in the right place now) or in the summer when other parents would sign their kids up for special needs summer camps and I would pack Jack off to the school system's less ideal extended school year program.
This year though, I finally found a way to get Jack into a special needs summer camp. He gets to go for five weeks, four and a half days each week. We managed to get funding that made the prohibitive cost affordable and I finally get to see what it is like to have a child in a classroom created specifically to teach kids like mine.
It is a revelation.
For the most part I am happy to have my son in a mainstream classroom. We've been very lucky with good teachers and no teasing thus far, plus I know that Jack has to learn how to grow up and live in a mainstream world. I truly believe that his school is the best place for him right now.
But watching him at his camp, which I have termed Camp Awesome, because it is, I can see what it is like when therapists and aides have time to not just cope with my son's behaviors, but to challenge him on them.
They are pushing him in every sense of the word at Camp Awesome. At home and at school he can find ways to get around what we want him to do. At home, he can manipulate the hell out of me. At school, the teachers have 20 other children to take care of. At Camp Awesome? They are taking none of it.
For example, the carpet at camp has the alphabet on it. Jack likes to sit on the "J." One day another kid sat on that letter. Instead of giving in to Jack's rigidity, they told him he had to sit on a different letter if he wanted to do the next activity. He (eventually...and angrily) did.
Then, the next time the class was going to sit on the carpet, they had an aide sit on the "J." On purpose. I think you can imagine Jack's reaction. Four days of this later, Jack happily sat on the "U."
It may seem small, but it's not. At school they probably would have let him sit on the "J." At home, I definitely would have.
I feel really fortunate to have found this camp with its wonderful staff and its resources to push Jack out of his rigidity at the same time that they are managing to let him have fun.
When Jack goes back to his school this fall, I will feel happy knowing that Jack is getting what he needs. Yet I will be extra grateful that he spent his summer getting the best possible care and I will hope that he can take those skills into class with him.
Stimey writes a personal blog at Stimeyland; an autism-events website for Montgomery County, Maryland, at AutMont; and a column called Autism Unexpected in the Washington Times Communities. You can find her on Twitter as @Stimey.