Friday, January 27, 2012

Another Conversation with Oscar about PWS

Every few months my son Oscar and I seem to find ourselves in a conversation about Prader-Willi syndrome and how it affects his life.  I've largely protected him from the scary information and try to frame any limitations he might encounter in terms of what he can do, not what he cannot. 

This morning, as he cozied up in front of the heater in his jammies, I should have reminded him to get dressed for school but instead I casually asked if he'd be interested in a sleep-away camp for kids with Prader-Willi at Camp Harmon this summer.  I think that conversation would have gone fine if I had not, in the very same breath, asked his 7 year old sister if she was interested in circus camp. Oops.  

Oscar's heard all about circus camp from our babysitters who are counselors there.  They've told him about the friendships and the art projects and the circus activities and the big show.  But what he remembers most about circus camp, I finally cajoled him into telling me, is that at circus camp you get ice cream as a reward for doing the dishes. Every night. Based on that alone he has decided that circus camp is for him.

I tried to tell him that I didn't see him being interested in learning to walk a tight rope or riding a unicycle or swinging from a trapeze high off the ground. 

I tried to tell him that I know he likes art projects, but that he also likes animals and basketball and that I was thinking about a camp that had those types of activities.

I tried to tell him that the Camp Harmon was like the family camp we go to every summer except that he gets to go with friends.

With tears brimming and lips quivering he asked why he had to go to a camp with all the "Prader-Willi people".

(I spent the next several minutes lecturing him on people-first language and not calling himself or letting others call him a "Prader-Willi" while he stared at me with a stunned look on his face.) 

And then I answered his question.

"Because, sweetie, at Camp Harmon they understand Prader-Willi syndrome and they know how to keep you safe.  Even if you went to circus camp you wouldn't be able to have ice cream every night as a reward for doing the dishes. Eating all of that ice cream would be dangerous and make you sick."

He formed a little circle with his index finger and thumb and said he'd be ok with only having a tiny bit of ice cream every night.  "I wouldn't need a lot, Mom, I swear."

He calmed down only a little when I reminded him that so many of the kids he looks forward to seeing at our fundraising walks, and support group meetings, and even yesterday at a middle school he was visiting have Prader-Willi syndrome and that many of them attend this camp. He smiled when I reminded him that Emilie and David and Owen would probably be there.  And he looked maybe a little relieved when I told him he didn't have to go to camp at all -- that I was only giving him the option.

I'd like to say this conversation ended elegantly but it didn't.  When I finally stopped talking sadness overwhelmed him again and the tears flowed harder.  So I tracked down his iPod, found his favorite Green Day album and plonked the headphones on his ears.  And I hoped that the abrupt transition to something he loves would distract him enough so he could get ready for school. (It did.)

We'll revisit this conversation again soon I'm sure. As Oscar heads toward adolescence he will undoubtedly notice more differences between himself and his typical peers.  He will have more questions. There will be more tears.

I am hopeful, though, that the opportunities he will have in life will always be meaningful and satisfying, even if not exactly the same as his typical peers.  I will insist.


Mary Hill lives in Berkeley, California with her husband and three children, ages 13, 11 and 7. She is actually blogging again over at Finding Joy in Simple Things.


  1. I have a 29 year old son with prader-willi syndrome. He attended Kiwanis camp in Oregon when he was 9...and then went every year after that. I think I was more afraid than he was. The camp is set up for children with special needs and each child has a one on one counselor. The journey of raising Casey could be very lonely at times. There were not many ways to get in touch with people when he was diagnosed at age 4 so I did a lot of guessing. If you want someone to e-mail or if you want to see pictures of him on my facebook you are welcome to contact me.