Whenever a parent called with an interest in our camp for a child diagnosed with Asperger’s, I tried to meet the child to feel confident he could successfully adjust to camp. Jason was referred through a camp referral service. His mom said her 11-year-old was musically precocious and gifted. His dad was a musician with a renowned orchestra, so I assumed Jason’s talents were encouraged or inherited from him.
I met Jason on a day when my wife, a teacher, and two young sons had a snow day off from school. The weather had cleared, so we felt we could make the trip.
Jason’s mother greeted us warmly and directed us to the den to wait for Jason, but Jason didn’t appear. He refused to come down from the upstairs landing and shouted for us to go away. I could see my children were going to enjoy this show of obstinacy. After some verbal combat between Jason and his mother, I tried to break the ice by sitting on the bottom stairs and showing his mother pictures from our camp album of activities campers most enjoyed.
One picture showed a rainy day activity when we set up the dining hall to represent a gambling casino. The counselors ran tables of black jack, poker, and roulette. Campers could win prizes of penny candy. “Look Jason,” his mother said, “they have gambling.”
Like a magic word, the idea of gambling unlocked any resistance Jason had to camp. “Let me see”, said Jason, as he hurtled his way down the stairs to look for himself.
I took the liberty of exaggerating the extent to which gambling was an integral part of the camp program with the good intention of helping Jason open up to a new adventure at sleepaway camp. My wife and I felt we had to have this endearing and interesting boy at camp.
Jason arrived at Camp Hawthorne and had little difficulty separating from his parents. He insisted on wearing headphones and carrying his portable tape player. This was breaking camp rules, but an exception that felt reasonable to accommodate. We later realized that Jason only brought one tape — of songs from the musical Carousel set on the coast of Maine — which he listened to throughout the day.
Jason adjusted so well he stayed at camp the whole summer. In fact, Jason came to camp for the full season the next six summers, and we made adjustments to his activities in light of his quirky behaviors, such as setting aside time to make sand castles on the beach — all while he listened to Carousel on his tape player.
Jason had perfect pitch, a natural gift of many musicians. Whenever a bell or a telephone rang, Josh would throw up his hands and yell out what key the sound was in. He assured me many times that the camp office phone rang in B flat.
Jason could never be rushed and needed adequate warning time for any schedule change. He became frantic when we attempted to move him too quickly into a camp van for a trip to the beach or a camping trip. Jason would seek me out, believing that I was behind this unsettling change of events, and shout, “We are not in rockets, Ron!”
During Jason’s fifth summer at camp, we discovered a most bizarre behavior.
I had allowed a local company to hold a lobster bake on our ball field. I insisted they bring their own dumpster so the lobster waste would not bake in the sun and stink up the camp. The morning after the lobster bake, before the dumpster was removed, we discovered Jason had climbed into the dumpster to look for left-over lobster meat. When he arrived at the dining room for breakfast, it was clear he’d gotten into something very smelly. Tiny pieces of lobster meat clung to his cheeks. When I confronted him about why he thought diving in a dumpster was an appropriate camp activity, he demanded indignantly, “How else do you expect me to get any real Maine food around here?” His Carousel recording included a song about a wonderful Maine clambake. He was quickly forgiven and sent to the showers.
Jason also made me laugh so hard I thought I might not catch my breath. It was during one of our camp talent shows. While there was the occasional piano or flute recital, more often than not, it was a chance for a camper to take the stage and show how he could take a piece of spaghetti, stick it up his nose, and pull it out his mouth — always a camp crowd pleaser.
To everyone’s surprise, Jason announced he was going to act out an episode of the Simpsons TV show, playing every character. He jumped all over the stage assuming the characters in rapid succession. The lodge roared with delight at his expressiveness and humor.
Our camp community cherished all our atypical campers. Many were poorly equipped to make friends at school, but with the structure and routine of camp life, they felt a part of a ready-made group of peers. Their lack of pretense, bragging, or competitive angst often seen in early adolescence children was utterly charming. Their honesty and directness helped make Camp Hawthorne a place where everyone felt free to be themselves.
Ronald Furst, M Ed, has over 45 years of camp experience. He owned and directed Camp Hawthorne in Raymond, Maine, for 25 summers and now works with Windsor Mountain Camp in Windsor, New Hampshire. Ron works as a camp consultant and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo courtesy of Wyonegonic Camps, Denmark, Maine.