For my summer job, I’m working at Camp Shutaf – a summer camp for kids with and without special needs. I double as a councilor and a personal guide for a teen with Down Syndrome.
Yesterday during lunch, I was handing out cups of water to the campers and as I observed the room out of the corner of my eye, I suddenly found myself thinking: wow, this is so normal. I was reminded of going to summer camp myself: color war, swimming, relay races, getting popsicles at pickup time. Had I been observing the camp from the outside I may never have guessed that “special needs” is even in the mission statement of the Organization.
First it made me think I must have special needs, if such a scene felt so normal to me. Then I remembered one of my favorite quotes from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon:
“Everyone has special needs, like Father, who has to carry a little packet of artificial sweetening tablets around with him to put in his coffee to stop him from getting fat, or Mrs. Peters, who wears a beige-colored hearing aid, or Siobhan, who has glasses so thick that they give you a headache if you borrow them, and none of these people are Special Needs, even if they have special needs.”
There were two incidents at camp which really made me think later that afternoon. The first was with a kid who is almost ten years old but not even three feet tall. Right before my eyes he burst into our homeroom and spilled every cup with liquid all over the floor before I could stop him. When asked why he did that, he replied simply, “I was upset.” I thought, hey, sometimes I feel like tossing a few cups of grape drink across the room when I’m upset. But I don’t, because I’m an adult and I learned not to. The important thing is to recognize that these instincts still exist inside of us, and just because we may have learned earlier to restrain them, does not mean we are different from this boy. He just has special needs, one of them being that sometimes he needs to be physically restrained when he is upset in order to calm down.
The second incident was with a camper with Down Syndrome. I was playing catch with her when a CIT approached us and requested she join the group activity. I had not had a lot of experience with this camper so I could not anticipate how she would react. She told us clearly that she did not want to join the group, and preferred to stay where we were and continue our game of catch. We talked her into it using bribes and ultimatums and whatever else we could possibly think of, and finally managed to convince her to join the group. Immediately my camper started hitting other campers. I didn’t see the first time and was not able to stop her the second, so I took her hand and kind of dragged/lead her upstairs to see the camp director and have a talk. After the fact it seemed obvious. She had told us clearly what she wanted, and we refused to pay any attention to her preference, so she got mad and started acting out. Wouldn’t it have been better to just stay where we were and keep playing catch? Kids with Down Syndrome don’t always communicate clearly, so when they do, I thought, maybe we should pay close attention to what they’re saying instead of holding the camp schedule as a higher priority. I recognize that there could potentially have been other technical challenges such as shortage of staff hands or not wanting to spoil her, but neither were relavent in this particular situation.
Because I’m a nerd, I’m going to borrow a metaphor from the world of mathematics. In Vector Algebra, a vector is called “normal” if it is at a right angle to another vector. The consequence of this idea is that normal vectors show us new dimensions. Any time a new “normal” vector is added, we have another direction to explore. The world grows. Lots of new combinations can be formed. On the other hand, staying on the same line or the same plane isn’t necessarily normal; in fact, in most cases it’s not.
Following this idea, here’s a list of what I think would be considered normal and not normal:
- allowing for lots of alternatives
- recognizing that each child is unique
- striving for individuality and celebrating differences
- trying to stick with one plan
- assuming that all children move in the same direction or fit into the same space
- striving for homogeneity and discouraging creativity
I believe there are endless valuable lessons to be learned from kids with special needs, because when you deal with special needs kids, you have to get creative. Usual methods we use in public schools just don’t work, because the kids are not necessarily even rational thinkers. Some kids will just sit down in the middle of the street and refuse to budge no matter how many times you explain to them that they could get run over by a car. You can’t just pick them up and physically force them to move, because they could be 19 years old and six feet tall. You have to find ways to appeal to them, you have to treat them with utmost respect and give them unconditional love, because they don’t respond to anything else. With non special needs kids it’s easy to forget that they need these things too, but if we look at the success of schools around the world, it is clear that love and respect are just as crucial to a child’s growth whether or not they have special needs.
And anyway, as we know, everyone has special needs.