**After reading, please read the letter from the Director of Education at the Aquarium in the comments section**
Well, here's the post I said I wouldn't be making in a while. Its kind of a hard one for me, because I'm going to post an honest review of what happened at the Tennessee Aquarium Camp 2010 with Jake enrolled in the Aquatots program. The Aquarium is a very very important place to us, and we have been members since I was pregnant with Jake, our first membership being bought so that we could preview the Ocean Journey. We get the Family + guest membership which is $155 per year and I don't think we've let it lapse much at all in those 5 years. Jake absolutely ADORES the aquarium and we go there maybe once per month or more, often with more guests than our membership allows. The aquarium has been integral in our homemade therapy sessions to teach Jake appropriate behavior in public. Its the "go-to" place to burn off energy, educate and relax. It will be the same kind of place for Manny as well, and its a safe place for me too.
When filling out the application for the camp, I was pleased to see a section for listing any special needs that the child may have. I assumed that either they were accustomed to having special needs children in camp, or that someone would contact me if they had any questions. No one contacted me, in fact I either didn't receive the packet in the mail with the information or it got misplaced here. I called on Friday morning (yes, I should have called sooner) to try to get some information (like where to drop Jake off) and to speak to the education coordinator about his special needs, but my call wasn't returned until Monday when I'd already dropped him off.
The Aquatots program is for ages 4 to 5 years (must be potty trained). For some kids this camp may be the first time they've ever been away from their parents, and I witnessed a meltdown by a little girl who didn't want to stay. Her mom said it was her first time, and she was fine later. I had butterflies with razor blade wings in my stomach. I attempted to explain to the counselor that Jake was autistic, and really didn't get much said, it was a flurry of activity and there were kids and parents everywhere. I left and barely had the ability to save my tears for the car. I just hoped he made it through the day... I'd just dropped my little boy off at CAMP. A year ago I would have said "No way, there's no way Jake could make it through even a moment of camp."
The first day of pickup (I still wasn't sure of the drop-off pick-up protocol because I didn't have a packet or parking pass) I walked up and was told "Ehh.. *shrug* he did pretty good. He won't sit for crafts."
Tuesday pick-up I was told "Wellll.... I guess he did better than yesterday. I just have to stay with him all of the time. He really doesn't like crafts."
Wednesday pickup went better, one of the counselors smiled and put Jake into his seat while the other gave me the sign-out paper. I asked how he did and got another "Oh, he did pretty well, I guess." I said "You know, he really wanted to do this, and he tries hard." This was met with absolutely no response at all or a small grunt, I'm not sure. I was sad. Was he having fun at all? Did he smile or laugh or like anything? Did they just hate me for bringing him? That uneasy feeling wouldn't go away. Ugh, I never know if I'm doing the right thing! Meanwhile Jake still said he wanted to go to Aquarium "school" and only got a tiny bit apprehensive when he was dropped off (for Jake anyway).
Today Granny took Jake to school and Steve got a call around 10something from one of the counselors. She said that Jake needed to be picked up, that he had yanked a little girl's hair and "besides, we're about to do crafts and we're using dirt, and I'm afraid that he might eat dirt and get sick or something."
As far as I know Jake doesn't generally eat dirt (Manny does). Steve said that he completely shut down after that comment and just wanted off of the phone. Why is that statement offensive to the parent of a child with special needs (who, as far as we know, doesn't have dirt-eating tendencies)? It kind of comes across as "Well, he might eat dirt.. cause well, I've heard that some retards eat dirt." Maybe that's a little oversensitive, but oh well, its been an emotional week. The comment was repeated to Steve's dad.
Granny and Pops and Zachary were actually still AT the aquarium, so they were able to join up with Jake instantly. For all of those who have asked (thank you for loving my kid), Jake isn't really aware of what was going on, and is not upset at all by the outcome. He was probably just glad he didn't have to do crafts.
I called the education coordinator and we had a long talk. She was wonderfully courteous to me and spent a long time on the phone with me. I gave her all of my constructive criticism, saying that it was misleading to have a section in the application asking about special needs if nobody read that section or attempted to address any concerns. I thought it might be appropriate (assuming your program accepts special needs kids) to contact parents who wrote in the application that the child had special needs and find out what was going on. I would have been happy to send Jake for only half of the time of camp, maybe pick him up before crafts, if that was what needed to happen for him to be able to have a positive experience, HAD I GOTTEN ANY COMMUNICATION AT ALL. She said that they had had a discussion about Jake the day before. Really? Because... I'm his mama, I'm always having discussions/IEP meetings and the like so that I can work with his educators to make sure that everybody gets what they need out of a particular situation. I can give you ALL sorts of wonderful ideas about how to make this better for everyone, even if that means picking Jake up every day after only an hour of camp. I told her that I had basically been making big shark-like circles around the aquarium for 3 and a half hours anticipating the call EVERY morning, and wouldn't have been the least bit surprised or upset should I have had to pick him up early. I would have ADORED to have been a part of ANY discussion that they had about my son.
I also talked to her a bit about the counselors attitudes. This prompted a call from one of the counselors. These gals are teenagers/college students, and this particular counselor said that she is going into education with a focus on special needs kids. I told her pretty much everything that I had told the education coordinator. I explained what a big deal that this was for everybody concerned, and that a mama like me could use some positive reassurance just every once in a while. She seemed to also be frustrated that there was no communication whatsoever and if she she had been more prepared, she felt she could have done her job more effectively. She said that she only gets the papers with the information on each child every Thursday and camp is still going on. Maybe someone positioned above the counselors should read those papers BEFORE the young ladies taking care of the children? I commended her for doing an awesome job spending her entire summer with classes of 18 crazy 4 and 5 year olds. I wanted her to know that I didn't blame the counselors, I just want someone to talk to me about apparent problems before it ends with it becoming a disciplinary issue. If he's too much trouble for you to handle, just tell me, we can work it out. Maybe some changes need to be made should the aquarium continue to include special needs children in their summer camps.
I broke down in tears with both ladies, I don't think I've ever cried so much in front of strangers as I do now. I'm really sick of that, BTW. I gave them the example of Toy Story 3: Jake has been DYING to see this movie, we've watched previews, he's been drawing the logo, and the other day I took him to a matinee, his first movie theater experience. I had two choices: 1) I could say "I paid $20 for this, and we're gonna watch the whole thing." or 2) "We're gonna see as much of this movie as we can, its Jake's treat, Jake can decide." After the previews Jake asked to go home. He accepted a potty break as an alternative and I left his backpack inside the theater because I knew he'd be too OCD to leave it behind. That got him back into the theater just in time to see Buzz and Woody on the screen. My baby sat for an entire 45 minutes of the movie. I pushed him to the brink, bribing him and asking him to sit back down, to sit in my lap until he had had enough and was on the verge of a meltdown. I went home satisfied that we got through exactly 1 hour more than I had expected (he could have bolted at the door the second he saw the screen). I opted to take what we could get, and so I was really happy with the result. I would do the same thing for Aquarium Camp.
Jake has been invited back to camp tomorrow, maybe to be picked up before crafts. I told the counselor that honestly I didn't think I was emotionally prepared for that. If something else happened I'd probably fall out.
Hopefully everything will go smoother if Jake decides he wants to do "Aquarium school" next year. Everyone was extremely cooperative and nice to me today. I just don't think they were prepared. Another mom said that its possible that few parents with kids like Jake have the balls to enroll them in such an ambitious activity. I still don't really know if he enjoyed it or not except that he actually WENT with the counselors the second third and fourth day.. which is a gigantic step for him.
Jake has a little plastic frog that he got from camp the first day, I think. Today he told his dad a whole list of things about his frog, like what it eats and where it lives. He talks about "Meggy" the counselor a little bit. It may not always seem like anything is getting through, and teaching him is far from instant gratification, but its worth it, I promise.