Saturday, September 10, 2011


This summer, an amazing thing happened in our lives: our 9 year-old autistic son Jacob went to (ASD) sleep-away camp for a whole week in late August. And we didn't get that dreaded phone call to come get him because he was falling apart, unable to hack it. He had a great time.

This is the child who clung to me and sobbed when I left him at pre-school.... Who had to have a photo of me taped up in his cubby at Kindergarten, so the teachers could bring him over and point to it when he got sad and called out for me, reminding him that he would be going home to me on the bus in just a few scant hours... The boy who every time we are out and about in the world doing anything, even something he truly loves, will ask, after a few hours, to go home please, telling me that he misses Coco (the cat) and his blue bear.

So knowing all this, why did we dare send him in the first place? Well, we did it for him and we did it for us. For him because he is too dependant about things he actually has the ability to be independent with, but not the inclination; thinking that a week without us would kick-start some self-reliance, push him to take more responsibility for himself, where others are having expectations for him with the bar held high.

We also wanted him to have the confidence that comes with knowing he could spend a week apart from us and survive, and maybe even thrive.  We were hoping he would make friends, would try new things, that the experience would open up his life.

And also? I was terrified. Because while Jake may live in the body of a rather large nine year-old, emotionally and socially he is a LOT more like a four year-old. And you don't send four year-olds off to camp alone.

Also, the camp was a pilot program, being run out of a regular camp, at the end of their regular season. So this was an experiment on all sides. It was set up for "high functioning kids on the autism spectrum" ages 9 to 13, and I was afraid that Jake would have less language and be youngest both physically and emotionally.

We were teetering on the fence about this for a long time: was this the right thing to do, or should we wait another summer.  But I didn't want to underestimate my son, and I wanted to give him this opportunity to grow.

So, with trepidation, a few Sundays ago I loaded up the car with Jacob and a giant black duffle trunk containing a huge portion of his worldly belongings, a full set of medicine & vitamin packs and a detailed description of his GF/CF diet. We had written social stories aplenty, made a special calendar that he could check off each day until it was the next Sunday and he was to come home. Blue bear came with, and he held him the whole ride up. 

It was just Jake and I traveling North to the Berkshires together because his twin brother Ethan was traveling West to another state this same Sunday with their Dad, on his way to an introductory week of sleep-away camp, himself, along with a bunch of his friends. (Remember when I said this was for US, too?)

The whole ride up I chatted away to an unusually quiet Jake in the back seat, talking about camp and how today was Sunday and I was going to leave him there and come back the NEXT Sunday and pick him up. It was impossible to know how much was sinking in or not.

We arrived to be warmly greeted by a lovely staff. There were around a dozen kids in the program, and surprisingly about half were girls. There was a family welcoming ceremony with songs and introductions.

You know you're at Autism Spectrum camp when someone steps up to introduce themselves to a group and says "Hi, I'm Dan" and a voice from the peanut gallery calls out: "You're short!" (He was.)

Toward the end of the ceremony, Jake turned to me and asked, calmly, "Are you going now, Mom?" So I guess he understood, after all. I told him I was not leaving quite yet, that all the mommies and daddies would be kissing their kids goodbye at once and then he would go off with his counselors to settle into his bunk and begin the fun.

And when the time came, that's exactly what happened. A big kiss and hug, a wave, and goodbye, Jake. Wow. Someone had tears in their eyes, and it wasn't the boy.

I got a call the next day, and nearly had a heart attack because I got to my phone just as it rolled into voicemail. But it turned out to be a courtesy call, wanting to reassure us that all was fine, share that Jake had settled in well and was happily having fun.

Like all modern camps these days, photos posted daily to their website and we were able to see our boy swimming, dancing, sculpting, playing games, playing drums. Sometimes smiling and laughing sometimes looking a little lost inside himself, but never scowling, unhappy.

How strange it felt to not have him home, how many extra hours I had in my day to get things done, how unstructured my evenings became -- which was both exhilarating and vaguely un-mooring; that's another story for another day.

And then, when it was time to pick him up, he ran to Ethan and I beaming, happy to see us, but turning and waving goodbye to his new friends, too. A happy, tired boy, my little fledgling, one step closer to becoming the young man he will someday be.

Varda writes about "birth, death and all the messy stuff in the middle" on her blog "The Squashed Bologna: a slice of life in the sandwich generation"  She also tweets as @Squashedmom. Varda is proud to be a Hopeful Parent.