Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Regrets... or Not?

In the summer of 1991, when I was 10, my then-13-year-old brother went to Camp Negev, a secular Jewish overnight camp. My mother asked me if I would like to go for a special two-week session offered to the youngest kids, and I declined. No, I was not going to go. That would mean interrupting my third summer at Art Camp (not its real name; for simplicity I will just call it that), an artistic enrichment program held for six weeks each summer at a small Quaker school.

Wood shop was my favorite class at Art Camp, and 1991 was the summer in which I started an annual tradition of creating and implementing an ambitious woodworking project. Most other kids just copied the projects that were on the display shelves, but I drew elaborate plans on graph paper from scratch. The counselors (most of whom were actually teachers from the school) always encouraged my projects, never once telling me, "You can't do that; it's too hard."

The summer of 1994 was my sixth and final summer at Art Camp. As I was entering 8th grade and just a few months away from my fourteenth birthday, it was the last year I was young enough to go to this camp as a camper. I decided then that I was going to do the most ambitious project of them all-- a model Pitcairn autogyro. Through lots of bumps and hurdles, I made the airplane over the course of the summer. I was very proud, and was glad that my final year at Art Camp had ended on such a high note.

However, I was very sad that I was too old for Art Camp and that I had to move on. I would miss wood shop-- and the variety of other projects I got to do at camp. In true Asperger's fashion, I approached each project in each class (except dance-- I'm a total klutz with anything that involves full-body coordination) with a single-minded focus. If I made any friends, great. If not, I didn't care. In fact, it rarely crossed my mind to try to make friends. I occasionally befriended a couple other kids, but first and foremost I was at camp to work.

The reason I finally decided to go to Camp Negev in 1995 was simply this: I had to have something to do in the summer, and I knew that my brother had loved the camp in the three years he went. At least in going there I would have some point of reference in terms someone I knew having loved it. The only other alternative, it seemed, was to spend the summer killing time with  flaky people I weren't even sure were my friends. My biggest fear about camp was that the kids would be just like the kids at school: I was sure that the girls in particular would giggle to each other, and then when I'd ask what was funny, they'd giggle again and say, "Nothing"; I was sure the girls would put makeup in the morning and constantly complain about how fat they were even if they were skinnier than Gandhi on a hunger strike; I was sure I would be bullied (although I didn't call it that back then, because I was convinced I deserved all the abuse I had received), and just as badly as I was in school.

None of these things happened-- like Art Camp, the camp philosophy emphasizes individuality-- but the beginning was rough because the aforementioned scenarios were all I had known. It wasn't until a counselor, Jonas, reached out to me and became my friend and mentor (for the next six years, no less) that I was able to be happy and comfortable at my new camp. I realize that if not for his intervention, I probably would not have returned the following summer. I not only did return the following summer (and also went on the post-11th grade Israel trip and came back for the post-12th-grade CIT program), but I also felt extreme regret that I had waited so long to go to give Camp Negev a try. I eventually became jealous of the other kids who had been coming since 1991; kids whose faces showed up in group photos; kids who would say, "Remember in '92 when this happened? Or in '94 when we did that?" and I was not be able to share these memories and laughs with them.

In fact, what I had really regretted about not coming to Camp Negev when I first was offered the opportunity was why: I was in love with the projects at Art Camp. It had nothing to do with the people; as I have said, friends hadn't been my priority there, but instead everything to do with the intense projects that I tackled there. I felt silly for that. After all, I realized, when people come back to any camp year after year, it's because of the bonds they formed with other kids, not because of things they got to make. At one point I began to wonder what was wrong with me that this fundamental point had never been obvious to me. For several years, I truly regretted the decision I had made to miss Camp Negev in 1991… and 1992, and 1993, and 1994.

But today? I don't regret my decision. Not in the slightest. I am still a bit envious of my campmates who had gone there since 1991, but I realize that doing so would have been a huge mistake on my part. I grew up in an era where this "weird thing" about me didn't have a word. Jonas hadn't started working at Camp Negev that summer (like me, 1995 was his first year) and thus wouldn't have been able to provide the crucial intervention I needed to help me feel comfortable socially and emotionally. And without the accommodations that would be made for today's campers, I realize how fantastically lucky I was to have a counselor like Jonas at all. I fear that had I gone in 1991, I would have had the same prejudices and fears as in 1995, but nobody would have been able to help me. I would have hated camp and never come back.

With 20/20 hindsight, I understand of course that my single-minded focus on projects instead of people was a blatant manifestation of Asperger's Syndrome. I don't regret this single-minded focus, and I do regret that I don't have it nearly as much as I used to-- I got more done in those days. When I scoffed at my younger self for having been this way, I was, of course, accepting societal norms about what is supposed to be important to people, and what summer camp is supposed to be. I have absolutely no regrets for going to Art Camp until 1994; I simply wasn't emotionally or psychologically ready for overnight camp, and even when I was, Jonas was a huge piece in this social awakening that I finally experienced. I am glad that I got to make my Pitcairn Autogyro in 1994, and it still is one of my fondest memories. Camp Negev may have been important for my social development, but Art Camp was important for developing my artistic skills and visual-spatial-reasoning skills, all of which mattered to me deeply.

I have wondered, however: what if I were growing up today in an era in which there is better education for camp counselors who might have to look after young kids with Asperger's? It would have been safer to send me to Camp Negev, and most likely I would have gone, and likely have come back year after year. But then because of these "interventions", I wouldn't have had the opportunity to make something like my Pitcairn Autogyro (unless, of course, my parents had found an overnight arts camp for me, which is definitely possible). I would have responded to the "interventions" and made sure to spend more time with people than I did. And would it been at the expense of the personal projects I was so passionate about? I don't know. But this is often a question that plagues me: At what cost is intervention for kids on the autism spectrum? This cost-benefit analysis is something I have wondered about for a few years now. I don't have the answer.