Got back from Toronto and it was clear that while seeds may have been planted, it would take time for them to sprout. I did not plan any camps for the children given our unusual summer schedule with two weeks in Canada at either end. I wanted to see how things would go and give them a chance to relax and chill out.
However, there is not much chillin’ for an energetic, impulsive boy so I found myself fantasizing about day camps.
Summer and camp go together like ice and cream, or hip and hop. However many kids like camp, most parents love it. It’s something you grow up dreading but reflect on fondly when adult life torches the sweet and gentle wick of childhood. While parents enjoy their children’s camp song performances and ghost story recaps, they really appreciate a week or two of exhausted kids at home or away. In any case, tired kids make happy parents.
Last summer, camp was a nightmare for our family. We didn’t yet have the full ADHD diagnosis/IEP/guidance/understanding we have now. So, naturally, we assumed that despite our unpredictable energizer bunny, a little coaching and some kind counselors would grease the wheels and he would “figure things out.” After all, he said he wanted to go…in fact, was dying to go to camp.
Turns out, camps of all kinds can be extremely challenging for kids with ADHD. As with your typical schools, counselors are barely beyond their teen years and most have no experience or framework to understand the behavioral needs of kids wired to move, interface, react, and explore. Sprinkle in clever, impulsive, extroverted, and sensory craving and you have a recipe for conflict.
We tried two different camps for our little guy. One was a day camp. It was rocky but he made it through with me literally coaching the counselors about what to do when he would resist, hide, refuse to listen to the rules or follow them, or have other attention seeking outbursts. His only saving grace was the head counselor had worked in special ed and felt she understood ADHD kids (she barely had more of a clue than me) so she went to bat for him a number of times. But the 16-17 year old counselors really didn’t care. They were not getting paid to figure out what was eating a 7 year old prancing about like a brat.
The second camp was an overnight camp and in retrospect, WHAT THE HELL WAS I THINKING? I relented to his pleas to go because it has been a tradition in our family and he watched his sisters go every year and really believed he could do it. Well. No. We got a call the second night to come get him. He was not jiving with his cabin or his main counselor. Ironically, I had just received camp photos that day and he had a big smile on his face. His counselor looked like a 70s porn star on dope, but otherwise, I think camp felt like surfing a barn door down Maverick waves to a little boy without an executive function control panel.
Summer camp would have to wait. At least summer camp as we all know and love it. Unless….
I heard there were camps for kids with ADHD. I heard these camps often changed these kids lives, helping boost their self esteem, social skills and emotional intelligence. Could such a thing actually exist? Surely not anywhere near me? I did a quick online search (I boycott the “g” word as a verb) and low and behold…this is NOT a fantasy concept. There ARE camps for these kids and they’re not all in New England. I couldn’t believe that there was one close enough to touch. It would be too far to drive him every day but my mom lives closer…Dare I imagine my little guy going to summer camp and not getting notes or calls every single day about events I could do nothing about?
I found Camp Yakety Yak, a place where kids learn about friendship and are fully supported in some amazing experiences and skill building by highly trained and compassionate specialists and volunteers. The founder started the camp for her own son with ADHD because their experiences had been much like ours. It’s tough for our kids to learn important skills when they can’t even get past the starting gate with neural typical kids and adults. Miss A designed camp Yakety Yak to fully accommodate the learning and behavioral needs of a diverse camper community and invite siblings and neural typical peers to join the party for their own unique experiences in building compassion and helping others. The more I read about the camp and the program the more excited I felt! This could be exactly the kind of positive support little guy needed right after all the neural stimulation he just received in Toronto!
The camp dates worked perfectly. My mom was willing to host little guy and his sister. They have been going to dinner, movies and parks every evening, making this day camp experience a more homey overnight camp, too. Best of all worlds.
I am writing this just days before camp ends. The two week camp is designed to build upon each day’s “classes”, working on individual goals each camper has based on their IEPs or other requests from their families. Daily progress reports go home to tell caregivers and parents all kinds of things about how their camper did.
Last week little guy learned a whole new system of reading his own and others’ emotions and strategies for how to respond to both. He also learned that his sensory sand can be and often is a distraction to him and others and that “fidgets” are not meant to be used that way. He was offered alternatives from their on-staff OT (occupational therapist) which seemed to be working. He has grown very obsessive with his sand box. It has been a huge source of frustration for school and home (and the TSA) but it’s better than an ipad and honestly…pick your battles…getting him to stick out an entire day at school, or even go in to the school building, seems like a more important goal than sand vs putty vs velcro under the table…sand proved to be the most reliable way to keep him engaged and present. But, I will be very, very happy if Camp Yakety Yak staff have nudged him into a new, less obtrusive habit…very happy.
My 10 year old is there as a neural typical sibling. She doesn’t know it but I asked the camp to support her in expressing her frustrations having a brother who demands so much time and attention from the family as well as learning to stand up for herself. From what I understand, she is making some great friends. This weekend when they were home, she said that it is helpful to see that she is not the only sister or sibling with a “crazy” brother. Sometimes, just knowing you’re not alone is very helpful. Camp Yakety Yak has counselors on staff who specialize in therapy and helping siblings cope with difficult feelings, too.
Little guy also earned the chance to MC a talent show, which he did with tremendous flare and enthusiasm. One of the camp founders who had been working with him on the sand and staying engaged in group work was all teary eyed showing me her video of him standing in front of the entire camp announcing “Annnnnndd next UP is Dannnnnnnyyyy with his toothless whistle!”
The camp puts on a show on the last day for parents. I’m hoping I get to see some of this little showman’s sparkle Friday.
What have I been doing while my youngest two are away? Cleaning of course. I’ve been organizing closets, drawers, cabinets, garages. Completely obscure projects and feeling nostalgic about handprints, mini me dolls, old doll houses, giant stuffed polar bears, and dragons.
My oldest daughter is now old enough to spend her summers away. This dragon was hers, less than 10 years ago. It was on my list to clean or paint over for years and I never had the chance to get to it. As I started to clean it off with one of those miracle pad things, I was floored by grief over her fading childhood. In so many ways, this dragon scrawled into the wall was all that was left. Despite the fact that we are trying to sell this house, and that having a child’s scribble on the wall is not exactly appealing to buyers, I wanted to keep that dragon there forever. I took a photo instead.
I took a break from my cleaning frenzy to sit on the lawn in the sun, drying my tear stained cheeks when an enormous black and blue stripped dragonfly hovered right above me. We always have dragonflies in our yard. This one was new. And huge. And I immediately felt that it was her dragon come to life. I hadn’t erased him. I had freed him from two dimensions. It was like the magic of childhood and her dragon were not gone, they were transformed, born inside of her and now buzzing in the world. Life is transformation. Life is change. Yes, hold on to these moments and cherish them. They are sweet and fleeting. But the magic never dies. It just transforms.
I hope that in writing about our journey with our son and all the heart wrenching experiences and hopeful discoveries that hope is freed from the two dimensions of this screen and comes alive in your heart, dear reader.