It’s June again—that time of year when we wake early to birdsong and a bright sunrise, our days are long and pleasant, and summer camps are getting underway for school-age children. For parents who have an autistic child, a major consideration in choosing a camp is how well it can meet the child’s needs. Many families choose an inclusive camp, where children with and without disabilities participate equally in the programs. Inclusive camps often are promoted as having educational value for autistic children, in that they provide an opportunity to interact with non-autistic peers and develop social skills.
There’s no doubt a child can benefit from interacting with peers who have different backgrounds and abilities. I would say, however, that the social skills involved have a much broader scope than is often recognized. When children take part in a camp or other activity without exclusion or discrimination based on disability, they learn skills of vital importance in today’s multicultural world—to appreciate one another’s diversity, to understand and accommodate differences, and to develop friendships based on genuine respect and equality.
When I was a child in the mid-1970s, my sister and I spent a week at a summer camp in the mountains. At that time, racial integration was an issue of much concern. Camp staff, in assigning tent mates, made sure to pair each black girl with a white girl. Charitable groups raised funds to provide camp scholarships for low-income minority children, in the belief that they would learn the ways of the mainstream culture and become more productive citizens as a result of developing friendships with their white peers.
But as it turned out, although there were some melting-pot effects, the benefit of racial integration wasn’t that minorities learned how to talk and act more like white people. Rather, mainstream society itself changed. Ethnic accents and cultural differences became part of the fabric of everyday life. Our collective concepts of Us and The Other shifted, such that more people could be welcome on the Us side of the line.
A similar shift is taking place with regard to autism and disability. Although our culture once took for granted that social exclusion was natural and inevitable for certain kinds of people, we’re now discovering that just as in other civil rights contexts, integration expands society’s comfort zone. When people of many different neurological types regularly interact as equals—at camp, in school, and in the workplace—they are seen as within the ordinary range of human variation, rather than as a strange and frightening Other.
So if you are a parent who has chosen an inclusive summer camp for your child this year, kudos to you. Valuable social skills are sure to be gained from the experience—whether or not your child is autistic.