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Crossover and special needs/Autism

Hello everyone!

I’m looking for tips and success in helping to navigate a scout with ASD from being in a Cub Scout Pack to a Scout BSA Troop.

A little background: as the Cubmaster and Den Leader, I have been able to use my training and background in developing a fun program in Cub Scouts for my son who is high functioning with Autism. We’ve been going to therapy with qualified doctors and receiving special help from the school district on a regular basis for a number of years. I figure that I have around 200 hours of training through programs, therapy sessions, and the like. And that’s not counting practical knowledge gained by visiting with other parents with children in similar situation.

The problem is this: the troop is youth-led. While that’s great, the youth don’t have that same level of training or even really any exposure to specific skills necessary for guiding and advocating for scouts with Autism. The result is that my son who loved scouting just last month is just about done with it now.

The troop is great and the leaders are great. I’m 100% confident that I can approach the unit leaders with ideas and to discuss options. My question is one of practice: For parents and leaders who have worked with youth and ASD, what possible options are available?

What I’m looking for are ideas to bring to the leaders so we have something practical to start the discussion about.

Thoughts I have so far:

  1. Do I move from “the back of the room” during meetings to sitting with my son to be an active advocate?
  2. Can I provide training to the youth leaders to help them create appropriate meetings that include my son?
  3. Should we look for another unit (or form one) that is better suited for ASD and spectrum scouting?
  4. Should we consider Lone Scouting where I can advocate for my son 100% of the time and not interfere with the local unit’s success?
  5. Should we stay in the local unit and reduce meeting attendance, kind of functioning as “lone scouts” but I provide a meeting structure more conducive to his special needs?

All thoughts are welcome.

Paul,

We have several Scouts in my troop with ASD. Their parents have helped educate the leaders and Scouts. The Scouts sit with their patrols and the parents sit with the appropriate group. One’s parents are ASMs so they sit with the SM and other ASMs while the other is on the committee so she sits with the other parents.

Does your Council have a committee to help with issues involving Scouts with special needs?

Have you had a discussion with the SM and other leaders about your son and ways the can best help him to be successful? I have found in many cases it is not a lack of desire to help but a lack of know how to best help.

Northern Star Council has some videos on their Support Scouts with Special Needs page that might provide some ideas too.

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First off, those videos are awesome!

Like I said, I’m confident that the unit leaders will have discussions with us and come up with ideas, I’m looking for ideas to bring.

Thanks for sharing! Send more please!

Paul, did you and your son visit the Troop during a Troop Meeting or campout prior to his crossover? This is an excellent way to gauge the temperment of the Troop and for your son to meet the Scouts he will grow with.

Consider signing up as an Assistant Scoutmaster. You will be able to guide the Troop adult leaders and Scouts through this new ground of welcoming and working with Scouts with learning disabilities.

Remind the Troop of the elements of the Scout Law: Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous and Kind and how they apply to Scouts with special needs.

Seek a Scout who can mentor your son. Spend some time with this Scout’s parents and the Scout so they can get to know and understand your boy.

My son is in his fifth year in Scouts BSA. Prior to crossing over, we visited both Troops in our town and selected the one that had many adult leaders who were sensitive and welcoming to a young man with autism. My son was integrated into the Troop and has been treated as an equal. He has thrived in a loving environment and will complete his Eagle rank in the coming months.

It has been heartwarming to watch the Scouts in our Troop advance and grow together. If a Troop lives the Scout Law and Scout Oath, Scouts with special needs flourish.

All the best to you and your Scout.

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@PaulMcDonald - there are indeed many levels of the scouting program that will make this a meaningful, memorable and awesome experience for your son. Yes, few of us volunteer adults are trained, educated and ready to take on the uncharted waters of youth that need just a bit more coaching than others, but we do what we do out of a love of the program. As someone who works (kind of an odd word based on the pay) in the pack, troop and crew levels it is far better for me to know my audience than to guess. Do not ever hesitate to say at the very beginning that these are my concerns and how can all of us work together for a positive outcome. Will we fail, yes, can we succeed yes…but only if it is a cooperative effort.

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Now thinking about Kevin’s post, your concerns and my own experience I always relate to new parents the story of my own son. He started out as a tiger cub who really hated to go to pack meetings because they were too loud, too crowded and on. Fast forward to today, he is a life scout, former SPL, founder of a venture crew and yes, it was him and council working on this and also working on his eagle project. Paul, dont hesitate to contact me…ok

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Bottom line: don’t worry about the unit’s success. Having to help a scout with special needs is good for boys. It can be rough, but so can a high-functioning scout that’s obsessed with advancement. A patrol can adapt and flourish if they learn what’s expected of them and when they need to ask for support when one of their own has an ASD.

The only exception, IMHO, is if your son is prone to violent outbursts. Very few boys are in a position to accept and manage this, and no amount of advocating from afar will help that situation. With such a scout, we insist that the parent attend all events and be prepared to remove their scout from a triggering situation if the need arises. In those first years, the scout may have to bunk with the parent. In a good troop, the parent isn’t alone in helping sort out what things are and are not triggers, and we all step up to help the scout navigate what is an otherwise overwhelming environment.

By now, you know that there is no one-size-fits-all strategy. So, my suggestion is make a Plan A, B, and C. And be prepared to go back and forth between them as you and your son figure out what works.

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I agree with you on the danger of violent outbursts. Thankfully, that’s not an issue in this case. But that’s a fair point to bring up.

One strategy that we are considering is taking the Scout Handbook and putting it on the shelf for a few months, then just focusing on meeting the other scouts and getting comfortable in the new setting. That may mean just doing games and active play but not participating the rest of the regular meeting.

We are meeting with unit leaders and developing a plan. All advice is relished!

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Here is another suggestion: Sign up as a Merit Badge Counselor for the Disabilities Awareness merit badge. And talk to the Scoutmaster about the possibility of working some of the requirements into some troop meetings or activities.

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Hi, @PaulMcDonald,

I’m really sorry to hear that your son isn’t feeling scouts at the troop level. That’s really unfortunate, as I think every unit has a place for scouts who are “out on the tails of the distribution” in any capability, whether it be physical, behavioral or mental. If my unit hadn’t accommodated to my issues as a youth, I would never have made Eagle, and we were a far more youth-led unit that any I’ve run into in recent memory. I think you’re getting a lot of good advice, and it sounds like you’re already on the right track in terms of trying to “personalize” the experience for your son. I would reiterate the advice to talk openly with the unit leadership – both youth and scout – about what your son’s goals are and even what some current limitations on his abilities are, better still if he’s able to explain any of this himself, I would encourage that as well. I think of it very similar to creating an IEP for a student: it’s more than just establishing “modified” educational goals/metircs, but extends to helping create a plan for how best to help the student (or in this case, scout) succeed and define their own metrics for success, to the best of their ability.

Honestly, I wouldn’t worry about interfering with the unit’s success (your #4). Personally, I would view helping them learn to recognize and accommodate others’ capabilities (whatever those capabilities might be) as promoting that success, rather than limiting it.

We have scouts with varying levels of impact from different developmental issues, and many of them apply some degree of limiting interaction at the unit/subunit level (your #5). It’s more of a “day-by-day” strategy, and the scouts are really integrated within the unit and their patrol, just not necessarily at every meeting/event.

I’d say the idea of looking for another unit more focused on special needs scouting (your #3) might be a tough call. What I mean is that it might or might not be better suited to serving your son’s needs. Typically, every scout in a “special needs” unit has differing needs to be met. This is, honestly, true of every scout in every unit, although I feel like that’s often glossed over. Accommodating every scout’s needs could, if not done particularly well, adversely impact your son’s scouting experience. For example, a troop that has a large number of scouts (but not all of them) who have a visual impairment might avoid doing activities that are primarily visual in experience (e.g. art museum). Done well, the unit might substitute a more tactile (e.g. sculpture garden, pottery) or auditory (e.g. musical performances) experience. Done poorly, the unit might not participate in arts-related activities due to a failure to perceive the alternatives. At the same time, if your scout is particularly sensitive to sound, the way that I am, a musical activity could turn out to be overwhelming. My recommendation would be to work with your son to give a non-special needs unit a chance to see how it works for him. One of our special-needs scouts was incredibly disruptive and off-task during meetings when I first met him. After several rounds of scoutmaster conferences, having various leaders working with him to help him develop a statement of his goals, and work through what he needed to do to pursue them, he’s starting to see himself (and be seen by other scouts) as a valued member of the unit as opposed to a disruptive influence. I think people overlook the fact that many of the scouts who might be considered to have “special needs” perceive themselves adversely in comparison with their peers, and benefit from a more hands-on approach from youth and/or adult leadership to help them overcome this (IMHO incorrect) self-perception.

I would probably discourage being an “active advocate” for the most part, just because I’ve seen it work poorly with Scouts BSA-aged youth. What I mean is that, from my observations, it seemed to reinforce for both the scout and his peers that the scout was “different”. Referring again to the scout I mentioned above, I had the opportunity to provide one of his scoutmaster conferences. His parent wanted to participate in the conference, and I discouraged the idea of parent participation because I noticed that the parent had a tendency to “do for” the scout, rather than letting him do for himself. I pointed out in front of the scout that I thought he could handle this himself, and that if the parent was really concerned, they could sit off to the side and watch. It was a bit outside of the scout’s comfort zone in the beginning, and I probably pushed a bit harder than I should have for him to tell me what he was enjoying (and not) about scouts so far, and what he wanted to do more of, etc. All in all, though, I focused on soliciting and giving him the same sorts of feedback on his experience as I did with the other scouts. The only real difference is probably that I gave him more time to try to enunciate what he was trying to say, and more encouragement that it was okay to pause and think about what he wanted to say. I made sure he understood we had plenty of time, and could reconvene to continue the discussion if he wanted; that however far we got (whether he thought we were “finished” with the discussion or not) would count towards rank. I gave him the same advice I give all of my scouts that a conference is not a pass/fail situation, it’s a discussion to benefit both the scout and the troop. I found that the more that the scout was “watchfully” on his own (meaning that his parent or another adult was keeping an eye on things from the background, but letting him handle things except in extremis) both during the conference and in other unit activities, the more he adapted to interactions with the other scouts, and the more comfortable he became without his parent shepherding him along. Also, I noticed that the parent also became more comfortable with letting out the proverbial apron strings a bit more. I saw similar changes in a scout who was in my Webelos den as his parents allowed him more “freedom” from direct supervision. That said, the Webelos scout was (I think) more profoundly impacted in some ways (and less in others) than the scout at the troop level, and I would probably have had his parent sit a bit “closer” during the conference, since I know that in some ways those types of situations were a trigger for disordered behavior in him. He displayed far more of what people think of as “classic” ASD symptoms than the scout at our troop level, and I believe that he ended up pursuing lone scouting after trying out a special needs unit.

I think that the suggestion that you consider becoming a MBC for Disabilities Awareness is a good one, and that might give you an opportunity to discuss ASD and other disabilities that could require accommodation with the unit without it being “about” your son (your #2). I think that has the potential advantage of helping the scouts learn about it in a more neutral context, rather than potentially emphasizing the idea that your son is “different”. Depending on how capable/comfortable your son is talking about his autism, he might even be able to “help” the other scouts earn the badge by doing a Q&A to satisfy requirement 3a/3b (depending on whether he has more feedback on scouting at the troop level or outside of the scouting context). If he’s really comfortable, he might even work with the scouts to develop a program that could help them “present” what it’s like for him to experience autism (req. 3a). That could give him some agency in how he wants his condition accommodated, and also in expressing his experience. I know some folks who are more capable/comfortable than others talking about their condition, so this could go really well or really poorly, depending on that. I would also reiterate the idea of helping “train” the adult leadership as well, at least to the degree that they better understand what’s going on with your scout and what his needs are. These are some of the folks mentoring the youth leadership, so they are also in a position to help introduce ideas “neutrally” (or not, if done poorly) that help facilitate your son’s participation.

Out of curiosity, does your son have friends in the unit? How did y’all come to select the unit in the first place?

We chose the unit after visiting with the unit and going to a unit event. Another scout from our pack is in the troop so that was welcoming, and I have gotten along great with the leaders including one of the moms who has been the Cub Roundtable Chair. Two other Webelos crossed over to this unit.

We are right there with you on the sound–that can be a huge sensory overload. And a lot of people don’t get that (Hey, let’s do a yell! Louder, I can’t hear you! Now let’s sing a song really loud!). At one Webelos weekend at the council camp, we had to leave the dining hall just to eat because the rest of the camp was so loud.

I’ve already started on a “modified ISAP” --I’ve found the ISAP (Individual Scout Advancement Plan) to be woefully inadequate and really focused on alternative requirements. That’s not the case here: we don’t need a different merit badge than swimming–we need to have a modified accommodation for the unique needs of the scout.

For example, the IEP from school includes details that he typically requires accommodations and environmental supports:
• Extended time
• Take test in a quiet, non-competitive setting
• Adult support
• Frequent breaks for sensory and calming, when requested by the student
• Opportunity to leave assemblies if over stimulated
• Preferential seating
• Visual Checklist for task completion/organization
• Graphic organizers provided for written tasks
• Video modeling, social stories, and scripts

There’s no real room for that in the ISAP, so I started making my own as more of an action plan.

Sharing a draft of some of the comments: "Accomplishment of the Scout Rank may take several months to complete. The first few meetings will need to be focused on reinforcing the “fun” part of scouting. Many of the discussions may need to be spread out and handled during other activities such as playing a simple game like tic-tac-toe. This will allow the discussions and completion to be checked and verified without putting pressure.

Rank accomplishments and achievements will take a “back seat” for a period of time while Jackson focuses on fun scouting activities. We will put the Scout Handbook on the shelf for a while and allow the scout to become accustomed to the new environment and people."

Thanks for inputs!

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@PaulMcDonald Wow. All I can say is your son is lucky to have you for a Dad!

Other way around Steve. Other way around.

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I would guess that your sweet spot is some combination of number 1, 2, and 4. Scout led does not mean adult abdicate their positions and responsibility. As for number 4, the unit’s success is training youth to be upstanding citizens. I believe that part of the mission is the scouts learning to deal with different levels of ability.

Number 3 may or not be a part of this, I wouldn’t presume to know. But here is where I would consider:
The right troop considers its success in terms of training youth to be outstanding citizens. One of those facets is “Helping other people at all times.” Rubber meets the road, if you live in North Dallas your son is an opportunity for my troop.

Would my scouts need your help? Yes, please help my scouts help your son. I am far from an expert, but have had some exposure and could NOT have made it without parental help.

Through my life experiences dealing with various disabilities I am convinced that being an expert isn’t what is needed. Being open to meeting people where they are and wanting to help are.

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Based on your comments about advancement, it sounds like this is your first scout, and you are not familiar with the methods of a good troop. So pardon me as a step on my soapbox:
Every scout in every troop across the nation (dare I say world?) is to advance at their own pace, period. This is a hard and fast rule. Scouters that violate it are doing the country a disservice and undermine the very fabric of the oath and law. In a healthy troop you will see scouts at age 13 of 14 (and maybe one or two 16 or 17 year-olds) who have yet to earn first class rank. Some of our boys with no known disabilities take up to a year to make Scout Rank. They are just having too much fun to pay attention.
I have recommended you and many other well-meaning parents and scouters to take the following to heart:
First Class in the first year is a lie. The skills therein are difficult to master.
In short, your scout doesn’t need a “modified ISAP”, it’s built into the program. The things you listed are what we train our patrol leaders to accord every one of their scouts. E.g.,

  • give each scout in your patrol the time they need
  • test them individually provide honest friendly evaluation and encourage them to keep trying
  • if stuck, ask your SPL. If they’re stuck, ask an Instructor or an adult
  • take breaks as needed, be cheerful
  • find a safe place to chill
  • make sure they are where they can get the most out of the activity,
  • write out goals, make rosters,
  • help each member of your patrol figure out the best way to learn and do stuff
  • Explain, Guide, Demonstrate, Enable … that’s how BSA tells scouts how to teach each other. (I have my own axe to grind about this, but it addresses the point that you made.)

In other words, everything you asked is built into the program. We need to understand that 20th century scouting (not just Scouting for Boys, but the military kind Baden-Powell wrote about and boys started imitating) was designed for guys who weren’t “checking all of the boxes” in school and society. History doesn’t tell us how many of those great soldiers of yesteryear were “on the spectrum”, but I bet there were a few.

Now, there will be details that need to be hashed out. The guys in your son’s patrol will have to learn what’s helpful and what’s harmful. The PL might have to call in your help sooner than he would for other scouts. Or, maybe not. A lot really depends on those seven other boys.

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Regarding the concept of first class in a year:
Scouts on the Autism Spectrum can qualify for certain accommodations including rank advancement after 18 years of age (for scouts bsa)… if necessary. That being the case your scout’s rate of advancement should be a nonissue at all times.

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Differnt ly yetthe troop leadership know about your sons back ground. A favorite story I like to tell is our cubs and bsa scouts do the flag openings for the football games, I manly work with the older scouts show at this time did not know the cubs, as the kids were marching in line one cub got out of line and started skipping, I walked up to him and tapped on the back entending to direct him back to the line, I swear the kid I swear the kid jumped 5 feet up in the air ( my brothers son is austim I reqonisisd the behavior of getting to close to his personal space by surprise) this scout joined the troop this past spring and now knowing some triggers that he could react to ( at fall camp we were in the front row fire works that were part of the program (we didn’t know that was part of the program) me and and another leader glanced at the boy who was shaking, hands over ears, we got up motioned to the troop moved back a 100 feet, the effected scout was able to i joy rest of the programe , non of the other kids minded)

Every Scout is different, even the neurotypical ones! So make the most of your son’s strengths, while not worrying about trying to follow a particular timetable or meeting someone else’s expectations. My son took more than three years to reach Second Class, and that was fine with me–he needed that extra time. (We were fortunate to choose a troop that does not follow the “First Class in the First Year” mantra.) Yes, your son can have accommodations for merit badges and ranks; depending on what he needs, you might need to enlist the help of your District or Council Advancement Chair. My son doesn’t swim and won’t swim, so we had to develop an alternative for those rank requirements with the help of our District Advancement Chair and appropriate documentation from my son’s doctor. My advice is to start with the Guide to Advancement and read it thoroughly. Become a merit badge counselor. Even better, become your troop’s Advancement Coordinator, ASM, Committee Chair, SM, or other adult leader. Be at every meeting, not necessarily watching over your son all the time, but available. (And you get to make some new adult friends, too!) Go to summer camp with your son (in our troop, at least one parent of each special-needs Scout attends summer camp with their Scout). Know that you can apply to have your son be enrolled in Scouts beyond age 18 if he needs extra time to earn his Eagle, if that is what he wants to do. Yes, you need to do paperwork with your Council for that, but it is certainly doable. And then don’t sweat the advancement stuff; if your son is too stressed by the program and not having any fun, even after trying it for a period of time, consider another troop, Lone Scout, or even an entirely different activity instead. You are likely to find that your son’s capabilities and tolerance for sensory stimuli change over time, as well. It may take him a year or two to get used to the troop, the people, and the routine, so factor that in. And reach out to other parents of special-needs Scouts in your District or Council–go to Roundtable or other events and learn. Most adults will try to help you, since that’s why we’re here! Best wishes to you and your son, from one who has been there!

I don’t think I’ve ever promoted “First Class in a year” on this thread. That works for some, but I had no expectations that would be something to pursue for my son–and our troop does not subscribe to that tenet either. Not sure how that worked its way into the discussion… thanks to all who have chimed in so far!

Sorry for the confusion. From this side, your concerns about advancement work sounded like the troop is keeping scouts on a schedule – which none of us should be.

Some scouts may have aspirations on a special activity that will demand their sharpest skills in one or more areas, usually only a little of that challenging stuff will trickle into meetings.

No matter, if those scouts are on their game, they’ll rally around your son. Keep your expectations high.