Thursday, August 19, 2010

Touch my kid again lady and I'll set his TSS on you!

Yesterday Noah's TSS*, Jon, asked to talk with me.

Of course my first reaction was to sigh and feel a bit deflated. So often when someone who is involved with Noah wants to talk with me it is about something negative. Sadly, I've become a bit conditioned to react just as I did; like a balloon losing some air. Right back to feeling like I'm emotionally tied to the rail road tracks.

This time however it wasn't really about Noah. It was about how the staff at camp respond to him.

Yesterday at arts and crafts one of the specialists** (let's call her Mary because I have no idea what her name really is) became frustrated with Noah and made him leave the room. The problem is Mary made him leave the room by holding on to the back of his neck.

Jon saw this and (in his own words) went ballistic. He told her to get her hands off of Noah. And then they had words. And then the head of the specialists was called in, and the program director. More words were spoken. Differing versions of the event were given. Very 'he said, she said' it sounds like.

Jon was still upset and concerned when he spoke with me at the end of the day. He acknowledged he may have initially over reacted in how he told Mary to get her hands off Noah, but he felt strongly that she had crossed a line by holding on to Noah the way she did. He was also concerned with how she spoke to Noah earlier about the project he was working on.

Jon told me all this and my thoughts jumped back and forth between "wtf, you grabbed my kid you bitch" and "shit, just how upset should I get about this because seriously I'm not sure how willing I am to rock the boat considering our fear he may not be allowed back at camp."

Clearly I couldn't ignore this, nor did I want to ignore it. Jon has been awesome with Noah all summer, and after working with him for eight weeks, seven hours a day, he has a pretty good handle on Noah and his behaviors. Jon is also the first person to work this closely with Noah with the new understanding that attachment is the umbrella over a lot of his behaviors and emotional problems.

Jon also see's first hand how Noah and the camp staff interact. Something I don't get to see at all.

And most importantly? Jon has Noah's back. And as he put it, "not that many people do." Awesomeness yes? I mean awesome that Jon will stick his neck out for Noah in that way. Sad that so few people are willing to.

Once again we walk a fine line. Noah is a special needs kid at a regular camp. Just how much can I realistically expect the camp to "change" for Noah. The administration has shown over the last two years that they are willing to work with us. But how far can I push it?

I know Noah can be a PITA and that he often appears to people that don't know him as a bratty, spoiled kid. I just didn't expect that reaction from the counselors and specialists at camp because I thought they were informed of his "special needs" and what role Jon is there to fill. I'm not sure how much more "informing" I can do. I meet with the owner of the camp prior to the start of camp. I document on his application form his diagnoses and things to look for. I spoke with his bunk counselor on the phone and at the pre-camp visitation. And I've had regular talks with the head counselor, Kim, throughout the summer.

I spoke with Kim yesterday, and then with the head of the specialists, Martha, today. Both conversations were productive, although I still don't have a very clear picture of how it all went down and Mary insists it didn't happen the way Jon is portraying it.

As is often the case in situations like this, you are more likely to believe the story of the person you know/trust the most. I trust Jon. I lean more to believing what happened unfolded as he describes. The camp knows and trusts Mary, they tend to believe her side.

Fortunately, Martha has life experience, and she knows, as I do, that when there are two such differing stories the reality is often a combination of the two.

So yes, today I had a good conversation with her (the first conversation I have ever had with her). I'm sure once she realized I wasn't "that mom" that was going to make a huge stink about this made a big difference. She told me what she was told happened. (She took notes of the conversation she had with Mary and Jon yesterday, and then made them shake hands at the end. I thought that was awesome.)

The short version is that Noah has been rude and bratty during arts and crafts all summer (I'm sure the fact that Noah drew guns and shooting on one of his craft projects during the first week didn't help, since it freaked out all the adults) according to Mary. Yesterday he continued to be rude and difficult to work with and Mary had had enough, so she told him he could leave and join the half of his bunk that was already outside. Apparently he refused to leave, and that is when she "helped" him by guiding him by the back of the neck. Mary said she did not know Noah was a special needs kid or that Jon was there for him.

Martha acknowledges that if what Jon said is all how it really happened she is concerned, and what Mary did was inappropriate. She applauds Jon for sticking up for Noah.

She also expressed concern that this is the first time she has been told that Noah has been a "problem" in arts and crafts all summer. And that Mary had no idea who Jon was and that he was there for Noah.

As all this was being explained to me I realized that I was less concerned about the actual incident. (I spoke with Noah about it last night and he didn't seem at all traumatized by it. If anything he was confused that all the "big people" were talking and said he felt sad for Mary because they were all talking to her. Perhaps some empathy on his part, since it's usually him they are talking to or about.) I'm very concerned however that the arts and crafts staff went eight weeks thinking Noah was a pain in the ass and had no idea he was one of the special needs kids at camp. So clearly none of the information I gave the camp initially was filtered down to the staff.

The good thing is that Martha came away from her conversation with Jon and Mary yesterday with the same concerns. So at her morning staff meeting with the specialists today she asked them if any of them knew which kids had a TSS and what their job was. One person said he knew there was one TSS there. There are in fact three children there with a TSS.

So what we have here people, is a failure to communicate.

A failure on many levels apparently. The camp administration needs to do a better job educating their staff if they are going to continue to allow special needs kids to attend and insist they provide their own TSS. The TSS should have their own mini orientation and need to be introduced to the rest of the staff. And the TSS have a responsibility themselves to make sure they introduce themselves to the counselors and support staff as well.

Jon's role is to intervene when necessary, to hep redirect Noah, and to teach the camp staff how to better interact with him. His job is not to be his "buddy" or his one-on-one personal counselor. The goal is for Noah to have as normal of a camp experience as possible, and that means that the camp staff work with him just like they work with all the other kids.

Martha told me that she is going to make sure that this doesn't happen next year and that her specialist staff are given information about the special needs kids and the role of a TSS during their pre-camp orientation. I told her I'd be happy to come in and be part of that portion of their orientation and that I could bring in Noah's BSC to talk too.

While it's a crappy thing that happened, and upset a lot of people, I think we can turn it into something positive and use it to make Noah's (and the other special needs kids) experience at camp even more positive next year.

*therapeutic staff support
**any of the camp staff that aren't counselors but work with the kids in drama, archery, sports, swimming, etc.


  1. Having worked with special needs children at a special needs camp, I completely understand the frustration you must be experiencing. I saw many of my co counselors who were equally as frustrated with a difficult camper, and witnessed some situations in which I had to intervene. As a counselor, I learned to read the "signals" a few of my "troublemakers" would be flashing and eventually learned how to intervene before they did something drastic like freak out.

    I had one child in my care who would run away at the first sign of being frustrated/overwhelmed. She would get "over stimulated" and running away and hiding was her response. I was able to pull her aside and explain the "adult time-out" - ie not in trouble, but needing to take some space away from the group. Eventually I got good at reading her signals and would step to her side and lean in quietly and ask if she needed a "time out".... More often than not, her answer was a relieved YES, and she'd go sit outside the group at a picnic table nearby where I could still see/supervise her until she calmed enough to rejoin the group.

    Ok I've rambled enough!

  2. I am sure that if any one can make this communication debacle into something positive .... you can do it! On another note ... the camp is not ALLOWED to refuse a child with special needs (because of their special needs) that is discrimination and is protected by the ADA. So - the camp clearly has some training that needs to be done --- I am glad to help too :) .... S