Camp Aspie

This post may or may not include anything instructive. Take from it what you will. Its ditty is powerful, though.

My eldest has Asperger’s. She’s outed herself in a personal essay published in a local magazine; in the d’var Torah she shared at her bat mitzvah; to her classmates over a few years’ time. Still, she doesn’t wear a sign with her diagnosis on it (sometimes she bridles at the notion of “diagnosis” itself), and she’s not the type to just announce that she has Asperger’s. But, in certain company and in certain circumstances, she lets it rip. Which, if you consider her doing so an impulsive act of blurting (is that a repetitious phrase?), is entirely in line with the syndrome.

Interestingly, now that she’s well into her teenage years, she is incredibly self-aware. Way more so, I’d argue, than folks not on the autism spectrum. For nearly a decade, she’s practiced (hard, like an athlete at her sport) a number of social skills that many people take for granted. One of them is thinking before saying (or blurting, as the case may be). That’s a skill everyone could benefit from and is one that is particularly difficult for people on the spectrum to grasp, exercise, and -- maybe, just maybe -- master.

Here’s an anecdote that captures how far she’s come: Once, at a dinner party and in the middle of the meal, my daughter -- then about 9 -- shared one of the many random facts she’d stored in her head, without thinking for a nanosecond that it was an inappropriate moment for her otherwise fascinating history lesson. “Did you know that in Roman times, people would eat until they threw up so they could just keep eating? They’d go to vomitoriums and force themselves to throw up.”

I remember with extreme clarity the look on our guests’ faces. My daughter didn’t pick up on other diners’ discomfort with the topic, nor that the topic itself was completely inappropriate (nor that everyone around the table immediately slowed down their eating or flat-out stopped chewing).

Just two weeks ago, we took my daughter’s nonagenarian great-grandmother to lunch. Even before the food arrived at a lovely open-air restaurant, the family matriarch went unresponsive at the table. My youngest daughter got very nervous and left the table. My eldest, however, sat with her great-grandmother, quietly checking on her condition and coaching me to call 9-1-1. It was her kindness and extreme concern for another, as well as her cool demeanor, that helped prompt me to call the paramedics. It was a good move: Our family matriarch indeed needed to be admitted to the hospital for an unexpected stay.

Without my daughter’s years of practice meticulously gauging the needs -- social and otherwise -- of those around her, my high schooler likely would have left the table, too, without recognizing she may have been needed to assist in the loving way she was so capable of doing.

In retrospect, did her unruffled actions in that moment of muted panic surprise her? Nope. Rather, she knew the situation was clearly not about her, and she put another’s needs well above of her own.

Did that unusual experience change who she is at her core? Absolutely not.

Just last week, she and I were out to a casual dinner with a dear friend of mine and her son, who also has Asperger’s. The two teens have known one another for years and know one another’s quirks quite well, too. Both teens’ younger siblings were at an overnight camp, and so their camp was our current topic of conversation. Until my daughter blurted: “There should be an overnight camp for people with Asperger’s. (pause) But we’d all hate each other. So it probably wouldn’t work.” My friend, her son, and I burst out laughing, really like hyenas. Heads turned, and yet we kept right on guffawing, my daughter, too, at that point.

Even before we caught our breath, we all started sharing what attributes this Autism Spectrum Disorder overnight camp would offer its charges:

  • Plenty of books to read instead of engaging with other people.

  • 35,000 food choices at each meal, to accommodate every camper’s allergy, preference, and mouth feel.

  • Cafeteria trays with 18 separate compartments so that no one food choice would touch another.

  • Absolutely no organized dances and -- God forbid -- no loud music, whatsoever.

  • Headphones for every camper, either to listen to one’s own music choice or to block out the world.

  • One cabin per camper, each equipped with both an A/C unit and a furnace, as well as a therapist.

The list goes -- and went -- on. At my daughter’s prompting.

It wasn’t an embarrassing moment. Rather, it was incredibly beautiful. So self-aware had she become that she could poke fun at herself and those like her and nail a long list of typical idiosyncrasies specific to a population of people described as the opposite of typical.

We never did come up with a name for this camp. According to my daughter, it would be a money-losing operation anyway. But, still, it should have a name; a concept that good should be labeled. Camp Aspie? Camp Everyone Sucks? Email us if a good camp name comes to mind.

In the meantime, perhaps this post is somewhat instructive. Learn to know yourself over a period of time, and you know your needs. They don’t have to be pie-in-the-sky needs (or wants), like my daughter and her buddy’s fictitious -- though perfect -- Asperger’s camp. Instead, your -- or your company’s -- needs could be fulfilled in a jif. No time to create excellent web content? No time to properly pitch your terrific organization to the press? No time to help your child boost his or her writing skills? 2B Writing Company does all that, and more. And in a measured way. No blurting.

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