It’s June again -- that time of year when we wake early to birdsong and a bright sunrise, our days are long and pleasant, and summer camps are getting underway for school-age children. For parents who have an autistic child, a major consideration in choosing a camp is how well it can meet the child’s needs. Many families choose an inclusive camp, where children with and without disabilities participate equally and often are paired as buddies to encourage them to spend time together and develop friendships. The games and activities in such programs generally are cooperative rather than competitive, so that all of the campers can have fun regardless of their skill levels, and no kids are left sitting on the sidelines. Inclusive camps often are promoted as having educational value for autistic children, in that they provide an opportunity to interact with non-autistic peers and develop social skills.
There’s no doubt a child can benefit from interacting with peers who have different backgrounds and abilities. I would say, however, that the social skills involved have a much broader scope than is often recognized. When children take part in a camp or other activity without exclusion or discrimination based on disability, they learn skills of vital importance in today’s multicultural world -- to appreciate one another’s diversity, to understand and accommodate differences, and to develop friendships based on genuine respect and equality.
When I was a child in the mid-1970s, my sister and I spent a week at a summer camp in the mountains. It wasn't a camp designed for inclusion of children with disabilities. Back in those days, such programs were few and far between. The main concern at that time was racial integration. Camp staff, in assigning tent mates, made sure to pair each black girl with a white girl. Many of the games and activities were chosen to promote social interaction among all of the campers. Charitable groups raised funds to provide camp scholarships for low-income minority children, in the belief that developing friendships with their white peers would help them to learn the ways of the mainstream culture and to become more productive citizens.
But as it turned out, that belief soon came to be seen as reflecting an outdated and patronizing attitude. Although there were some melting-pot effects, the benefit of racial integration wasn’t that minorities learned how to talk and act more like white people. Rather, mainstream society itself changed. Ethnic accents and cultural differences became part of the fabric of everyday life. We realized that it wasn't necessary, after all, for everyone to speak and socialize in exactly the same way before they could be productive citizens. Our collective concepts of Us and The Other shifted, such that more people could be welcome on the Us side of the line.
A similar shift is taking place with regard to autism and disability. Although our culture once took for granted that social exclusion was natural and inevitable for certain kinds of people, we’re now discovering that just as in other civil rights contexts, integration expands society’s comfort zone. When people of many different neurological types regularly interact as equals -- at camp, in school, and in the workplace -- they are seen as within the ordinary range of human variation, rather than as a strange and frightening Other.
So if you are a parent who has chosen an inclusive summer camp for your child this year, kudos to you. Valuable social skills are sure to be gained from the experience -- whether or not your child is autistic.
A version of this essay was previously published at autisticadvocacy.org