Autism Celebration 2012: Girls Scouts & Autism by Dena Millet

My 11 year old daughter with Asperger’s Syndrome has been active with the Girl Scouts since she was five years old.  While she struggles with meetings and the social aspect of Scouts (especially as she has gotten older and the friendships in the Troop have become more complex), she adores activities, field trips, and going to camp.  I have noticed through the years that she blossoms in Scouting, she dives into service projects with both feet and finds her voice in public when she wears her Girl Scout Vest.  The same child that struggles to answer simple social questions from a person she does not know, wears her Girl Scout Vest, and has confidence, handling social situations with less difficulty.  She is able to work with many members of the community in setting up, managing, and following up on various service projects.

In 2011, we tried doing Cookie Booths for the first time, as when she was younger, I was unsure how she would handle working with the public in such a hectic environment.  She did very well with the booth sales and she and her younger sister earned enough through their cookie sales to pay for a weekend at camp.  We went as the only members of our troop, and I stayed with the girls.  My daughters both had been having challenges with night terrors, and the Camp Director (“Chipmunk”) was very helpful in making accommodations for the girls, putting us in the health center in the lodge so that the girls would be able to experience camp without added social stresses (and to prevent their sleepless nights from keeping other campers awake).  I was so pleased to see how much assistance we received to make camp a memorable experience for her.

We were in the middle of the dinner line on our first night when my heart sank into my toes.  We were in the cafeteria and out of the corner of my eye, I saw a girl staring at my daughters.  Immediately, I spun around and took a good look at her, recognizing her as the girl that had been a bully to my daughter for two years.  I hurried the girls into the cafeteria and to a table, my mind racing to determine my next action.  My first thoughts centered around making a quick escape and taking them home.  Not wanting to do so, I decided that I would keep my daughter so busy that she would not know that this girl was also at camp.  I felt very tired all of a sudden, realizing that this proposition was going to require a lot of work and quick thinking.  I decided to enlist the assistance of my 8 year old to help me.  She is very protective of her sister and I knew I could count on her. 

We went through this for the first evening’s activities as well as the activities for the next morning, and through lunch of the second day.  Any time for Mom to relax in the mountains was rapidly disappearing into the time and energy that was spent staying one step ahead of my daughter.  This was not fun for me nor my younger daughter, and my older daughter was happily oblivious.  This was not going to work for the remainder of the weekend.  I talked to “Chipmunk,” explained the situation, and the other girl’s Troop Leader was given a head’s up as well. 

That evening at dinner, I made my move, informing my daughter that the girl was at camp and that I had a plan to help her feel better.  She immediately began to exhibit anxiety and worry.  I gave her a hug, told her that she was going to be ok and that we were going to handle this together.  I had hatched a plan that would hopefully put this to rest and bring resolution to my daughter so that this experience would be memorable and meaningful to her and give her added self confidence. 

The ritual at camp for meals was to have small pieces of plastic fruit that were distributed from table to table allowing the girls at that table to visit the salad bar.  When our table had completed our round at the salad bar, I handed the plastic banana to my daughter and we walked to the table across the room, her with much trepidation as she was rapidly breathing, knowing we were going to the table at which sat the girl who had, in a nutshell, made her life very difficult.  I held her hand and encouraged her the entire way.  When we got to the table, she reached out, her hand shaking, and held the banana for the girl to take.  She uttered a tentative, “Here,” and the girl reached out, smiled and thanked her.  The exchange was complete; the ice had been broken.  My daughter sighed, and practically flew back to our table. 

The interaction was a success, yet I had one more plan in place to help my daughter conquer her fear of this girl and try and make this a positive experience for her, as well as a potential learning experience for the other girl.  The following day (final one at camp), had closing exercises and a “SWAPS” exchange planned.  (SWAPS are a long-standing tradition of exchanging simple do-dads with new friends and are so called because of the acronym: Special  Whatchamacallits  Affectionately Pinned  Somewhere.    

During a SWAPS exchange, the girls bring pins, etc. that they have made and exchange them with their new friends.  I had made one the night before to give to the girl and planned on visiting with her at the exchange and telling her of her strengths and challenging her to always use her dynamic personality to the betterment of others, rather than to try and control them.  This exchange went well, and my daughters saw the interaction (but did not hear it).  When it came time to do the SWAPS exchange, I sent my daughter to exchange with the girl (she was able to approach her on her own without my support) and stood by, watching her countenance change.  Within a few seconds, she turned, with a huge smile on her face, and walked a little bit taller that day.

I am so proud of how she did in facing the fears which had troubled her for so long.  I’d expected to bring home memories from Girl Scout Camp, but had no idea that the memories which she would be bringing home would involve such a life-changing experience, especially since she has not mentioned this girl and her bullying since. 

Have you had a Boy or Girl Scout experience with someone with special needs?
Dena Wootton Millet is a wife, mom of 2 girls and step-mom of 4 girls - the six range in age from 8 to 20.  Dena and her husband spend a vast amount to time trying to keep track of all the ins and outs of 6 girls and their busy schedules, not to mention their own!  One of Dena's daughters was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome at the age of 7.  Dena works raising awareness of Asperger's Syndrome as well as her work to increase awareness of and advocating for adult and child victims of Domestic Violence and Abuse.  She co-authored Cheaper, Greener, Cleaner - Ceiling to Floor Savings and regularly blogs at:

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Deanna Gibbons said...

Wonderful article Dena! I have seen Girl Scouts help so many girls break out of their shells and become more confident and open ladies. Seeing these girls evolve and knowing I have played a part, is why I will always be involved with scouts, even well after my own girls have grown out of it.