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    Posted April 29, 2013 by
    Rhinebeck, New York
    This iReport is part of an assignment:
    Living with autism: Out in public

    A Summer that Opened My Eyes to the Special Needs Community

    Last summer, I spent 10 weeks working at Ramapo for Children, a sleep-away camp in Rhinebeck, New York for kids with special needs. The children and teens at Ramapo deal with a variety of challenges—from cognitive impairments such as autism and developmental delays to attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and behavioral issues.

    When I decided I wanted to share this experience, I struggled with how I wanted to explain what it was like. The experience at Ramapo is so rare—there are very few camps in the country that mix behaviorally challenging and cognitively impaired children like Ramapo does—I wasn’t sure how to describe it.

    Ramapo’s goal is to help children build skills that can then help them in their daily lives. Those skills vary based on the child’s ability. One kid may be working on perfecting their backstroke, while another learns to use utensils when they eat. One may be working on controlling his anger, while another learns to appropriately engage his peers in conversation.

    One of my favorite days at camp was the day that 17-year-old Alex, who is severely autistic, tied his shoes by himself for the first time. Alex smiled for the whole day, and all of his friends and counselors congratulated him constantly. Seeing how thrilled Alex was and how enthusiastic the staff was about his accomplishment made me realize that Ramapo was a place where I belonged.

    Ramapo opened my eyes to the special needs community. Before coming to Ramapo, the idea of someone with special needs sort of freaked me out, and as terrible as that sounds, I know it’s how many feel. After 10 weeks at camp, I’d rather spend my time with children with special needs than any other population of people. They’re funny, smart, clever, and charming. Each child is unbelievably unique. Each child is unbelievably kind. No one will love you more unconditionally than a child with autism. No one will make you laugh harder, think deeper, or smile wider than a kid who needs a little extra help.

    I want to tell you the story of David. David is 7 years old and has Asperger syndrome, although you’d think he has the worst ADHD in the world—I don’t think he’s ever stood still for more than 60 seconds, and he’s constantly yelling and causing chaos. When he first arrived at camp, not a single counselor wanted to deal with him. He couldn’t participate in nearly any activities because of his behavior.

    David and I had such a special bond and it’s something I’ll never forget. He was obsessed with safety and loved acting as the camp’s security guard. I would constantly send him on “secret missions” to keep him engaged. Whenever I had to leave him, David would yell, “No! I want to stay with you! I love you!” Then later, when he’d see me again, he’d run to me in delight and nearly attack me, always seeming so surprised that I didn’t disappear forever. When I made mistakes, like yelling or getting frustrated, David always called me out, saying things like, “No, I don’t like you anymore. You were mean to me.” He always forgave me.

    On the last night of camp, when I was putting David to bed for what felt like the millionth time, I started to cry. I realized that David’s teachers, doctors, and the other people in his life would never see him like I did. They’d never realize that all he needs is someone to give him attention, someone to adore him. Instead, they would insist he is unfixable and treat him like a problem child.

    I know that David isn’t unfixable. In fact, I don’t think David needs to be fixed. Over his eight weeks at camp, David’s behavior improved remarkably. He made friends, participated in activities, and got much better at keeping his hands to himself. David is not a problem child. David doesn’t need to be yelled at or punished. David—and the thousands of children in this country like him—just need a place where people will appreciate them for who they are and help them learn how to appropriately say what they’re feeling.

    In my ten weeks at Ramapo, I worked harder and learned more than I ever have in my life. Ramapo taught me to be honored when someone, especially a child, fights with you and challenges you because that means they feel safe with you. There is no bigger compliment than being hit by a child; it just means they are confident you will not hit back.

    I could talk for hours about how Ramapo changed me. Everyone has an experience that changes them; it forces them to grow up in ways they never thought possible and teaches them what being an adult really means. This was that experience for me. M.J Croan once said, “Maturity is when your world opens up and realize that you’re not the center of it.” At Ramapo, my world opened up and I realized what really matters, far outside of my own little world.

    To learn more about Ramapo for Children, please visit www.ramapoforchildren.org.
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