Saturday, April 13, 2013

Autism Awareness, Camp S'dei Chemed Style!

The Autism Society has labeled April as National Autism Awareness Month. The United States recognizes April as a special opportunity for everyone to educate the public about autism and issues within the autism community. They say there is no cure for autism but I'm not convinced that's true. In might not be found in the sciences or medical field but it exist in how we treat one another. Before even the diagnoses of autism, 2000 years ago Chazal chose this same time of the year, the days of Sefira, as "treating your fellow man awareness time". But awareness for us religious Jews goes beyond wearing a ribbon or a bumper sticker. For us it means something completely different its about changing ourselves not the child with Autism.

This past summer my campers and I got to experience something other campers don't. We got to spend part of our summer with Josh*. Josh is a very bright and likable boy yet socially different than others. Watching my campers interact with him was a truly heartwarming experience. From his expressions during camp, I know he had a great time, yet I'm unsure who gained more from this experience, Josh or the rest of my campers. Below is a beautiful letter from his Mom that I would like to share now during Autism Awareness Month. Josh also wrote about his summer experience. Click here for that link.

Dear Readers,
The purpose of Autism Awareness month is to heighten the awareness of the public about the issues surrounding those who live with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). ASD's manifest themselves as a spectrum of skills, abilities and disabilities. As the parent of a teenage boy who has a diagnosis on the autism spectrum, I am well aware of the assumptions people make about my child. I have seen the slights of his peers, the exclusion and the fact that many people assume that he is, his disability. When he was first diagnosed, my husband said 'we don't spell his name ASD.'

Unfortunately, we don't always see that others feel that way. Our experience is that most people hear 'ASD' and then proceed to assume all sorts of things. We don't go out of our ways to tell people his diagnosis, but we find that in situations around school or camp, we need to disclose his diagnosis and be able to let people know what to expect and how to best be able to enjoy having him as a part of a program.
When we first contacted Camp Sdei Chemed International, we spoke to Dovid and even before submitting an application, let him know about our son. He was not at all put off by the ASD diagnosis and he listened, asked some questions and then said that he did not think it would be a problem and that we should apply as any other camper. We knew he would also check references and made a point to give references who would be honest and also be able to answer questions accurately.

Our son did have a lot of prior camping experience, and he had also been to Israel before. We knew he was a great kid and that he had always done well at camp. We hoped that Dovid would not have any preconceived notions about people on the ASD spectrum.
Our son was accepted to camp and as it turned out, he ended up joining camp once it was well in progress. We arrived at ten pm and I was struck by how enthusiastically Dovid was able to enlist a volunteer to show our boy around and get him settled.
I gave Camp my Israeli cell phone number and asked that they call if they had any questions.
No one ever did call. They wanted to see for themselves how he was and judge for themselves. Three days later, I called Dovid to make sure all was well, and he assured me that I had a great kid and he was fitting in very well! I barely heard from my son at Camp and on the free day from Camp, I took him and some friends into Jerusalem for the day. They were all happy and well adjusted and it was so nice to see him accepted and one of the gang. The camaraderie in the group was amazing!
It amazed me because not only was his ASD a complete non issue, but also because he joined already in progress and I thought that even in the situation of an average late joiner, there could be issues, but there just weren't.
At camp, he did things he didn't normally do- hiking Har Sedom stands out in my mind as being something that he found very difficult but with support from staff and his peers, he felt so accomplished when he was done. He particularly enjoyed the scuba diving in Eilat, Kabbalat Shabbat at theKotel and Shabbat in the old city. He would love to go back for the whole trip someday, and I would not even think twice about allowing him to.
I am grateful that Dovid saw our child, instead of his diagnosis. With no preconceived notions, my child was able to enjoy a spectacular camp in Israel, and have the opportunity to show others that Autism Spectrum disorder is not a reason to stop someone from having the experience of a lifetime!
Josh's Mom (You can comment on the blog to speak with Josh or his Mom)

After I accepted Josh many people asked me if I was worried that other boys might not treat him well and why I didn't seem concerned about it. I don't think I wasn't concerned, as much as I believed the answer doesn't lie in our children not facing the challenge. They need to learn how to treat other boys, and that's our job as Mechanchim. It's the child that is unwilling to be kind to others that should be dealt with and not the other way around. 
Dovid Teitelbaum
Director, Camp Sdei Chemed International

* Name changed for article

You can comment on this blog to speak with Josh or his Mom
Josh also wrote about his summer experience. Click here for the link

You may also like to read "How a Young Chasidish Boy Taught me a Lesson in Ahavas Yisroel"

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