Now that school is out and summer is underway, my job as an ABA therapist has gained a new facet: Working as a shadow aide at summer camp a few days a week! For those of you not familiar with shadow aides (also known as 1:1 aides), my job basically consists of attending camp (usually a camp for neurotypical kids) with a child with autism and doing what I can to make it a successful and enjoyable experience for the kid I’m with and the camp community in general. Sometimes it means I hang back and watch a kid for most of the day, only stepping in when problems arise; other times, it means I get to be a really big camper, participating in all of the summer camp activities side-by-side with the other campers to help my kiddo know what to do.
Side note: Being a shadow aide at summer camp is both rewarding and strange for me, because when I met my very first kid with autism, it was as a camp counselor in high school. I spent two weeks enamored with Jake (name changed) and his shadow aide, and after those two weeks, I pretty much knew that I would be working with kids with autism in the future. I spent a lot of my time that summer asking his shadow aide a million questions about autism, what her job was like, how I could get involved, etc. It’s strange to be on the other side of that relationship now!
In the past month or so, I’ve been to a handful of different summer camps with different kids, and have had some interesting interactions with camp staff, both good and less than good. The rest of this post is a list of things I wish camp staff knew or did more often; let me know what you would add!
Blue’s List of Summer Camp Guidelines For Working With Shadow Aides
Or, how to deal with the weird adult who insists on being in your camp group
1. The kiddo is the camper, not me. Try talking to him first, before you talk to me about him. Welcome him before you welcome me. A lot of people refer to us as “shadow aides”; please try to see me as his shadow, not as someone who should get a lot of attention. I want to blend as much as possible and let him enjoy camp as typically as possible.
2. The kid I’m with isn’t deaf, stupid, or feelingless. If you have a question, please feel free to ask me, but please remember that the kid I’m with can hear you and probably understands more of what you’re saying than you think. Some good questions to avoid (that I’ve already been asked this summer) include “What’s wrong with him?” and “Will he ever get better?”. Some better questions are “How can I help (name) enjoy camp?” or “What can I do when (name) is (specific action, such as hand flapping) to help him out?”. Concrete questions that help the kiddo enjoy camp are always appreciated; negative, judgmental questions, not so much.
3. I’m not a mind reader. If I’m with a verbal kiddo, or one with some sort of communication device, please ask them about their preferences instead of asking me. Obviously this isn’t practical for all kids, but I don’t actually know what he or she wants at a given moment– I’m not magically attuned to his or her every thought. So when you pass out snack, ask the kid if he wants a juice box, instead of asking me. I can tell you if he usually likes them, or if she’s allowed to have one, but only the kid can let you know if they WANT one.
4. I’m not here to judge you as a camp teacher. Honest. I’m not some corporate spy. More likely than not, I’m so preoccupied with focusing on my kiddo that I’m only half aware of exactly how you’re running your camp group. I’ve been in your role before, and I know it’s nerve wracking having another adult in the mix, but I’m really not here to judge you. You do your job, I’ll do mine. You’re better than you think!
5. Please don’t tell me not to do my job. I know you mean well when you tell me to back off and let my kiddo “have fun” without me, but please trust my judgement about how close and how involved I need to be. If I’m always at my kiddo’s elbow, it’s because recent past experience has shown me that he needs that level of involved assistance to do well. I’m not trying to ruin his day by being here, promise!
6. On the flip side, please trust that I am doing my job. If you don’t feel supported enough, please please please let me know, but if things are going well and I’m hanging pretty far back and looking at my notebook, it’s because I’m thrilled with how well my kiddo is doing and am trying to give him the space he has earned by showing me that he can handle himself. For some kids, having an aide all up in their business for hours on end is frustrating and aggravating; especially for kids like that, if I can hang back and they can do okay, I’m going to hang back.
7. Please don’t be offended if I don’t engage in much small-talk when you try to be friendly. I really do appreciate the effort, but you’d be amazed (and, sometimes, horrified) at the trouble my kid can get into if I take my eyes off them for 5 seconds!
I hope my list doesn’t sound too negative. I’ve really enjoyed all of the camps I’ve been to thus far this summer, and am thrilled that I get to keep going to more for the rest of the summer. For those of you who are parents of kids with autism who have been to camp, I’d be interested to hear how that experience was for you, and whether my list sounds like how you would like camp staff to interact with your child and his/her aide. Am I completely off base? Or does this sound pretty accurate?
Happy summer, all!