Our youngest son Dominyk just finished fourth grade, which means that this is the first year that he was able to participate in the camp experience for 4th, 5th, and 6th graders three of the United Methodist Churches in our city cooperatively sponsor. Dominyk enjoys camping, so I knew he would be pleased to participate, but I also know how difficult it is for him to be in the camp context. His diagnoses might explain my anticipated anxieties. He is diagnosed with ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder), OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) and ODD (oppositional defiant disorder) and borderline Asperger's.
His ADHD means that his attention span is not nearly as long as others his age, so he constantly becomes "bored." Routine camp tasks like eating meals together (including the preparation and cleaning of the tables) are challenges, because no one eats as quickly as he, and no one is as unsettled with simply sitting and talking through a meal than he is.
The OCD means that his dislike for bugs of any kind becomes a mantra of tangled anxious words. I can't tell you how many times he chanted "spidey, spidey, spidey. Don't like spiders." I tried to mitigate his concerns by reminding him that when we camp we are entering the spider's territory; it is their world we are entering, so we have to expect them to live there and do our best to avoid them. That seems to work, but only in a repeated fashion. In the least it gets his mind off the subject at hand long enough to focus on the idea that we are entering their world, rather than they trying to attack us.
And the borderline Asperger's means that it is difficult for him to relate with people. Although he is a pleasant, big-hearted person who has no malice or intention of causing problems for others, understanding appropriate social boundaries is a real challenge. Reminding him that when we live in a cabin with others we don't know very well it's not like living at home with people we do know is a continuing task.
All in all his week at camp was a pretty good one for him, largely because he met another kid from the other church who had some of the same issues. For purposes of confidentiality, I will not identify the other camper, but from my experience with special needs children, I would say that he shares at least one or two of Dominyk's diagnoses. And once they found each other they became inseparable friends for the three days we camped together.
It is hard to be the parent of a chid who is socially and emotionally out of sync with other kids his age. To witness the subtle and sometimes blatant expressions of reection by other children is more painful for me to witness, I suspect, than for him to experience, because the up side (if there is an up side) to Dominyk's diagnoses is that he is so tuned in to his own world that what others think doesn't matter much to him. While he understands that he is different from other kids his age, he doesn't spend a lot of time rehearsing the pain of social rejection. He is simply unaware enough of it that it doesn't matter much to him. But I see it, and it hurts me to know how others feel about my son with a generous heart, an inquisitive mind and a sensitive spirit.
But anyway, for the three days we were together in camp Dominyk had a buddy, a friend older than he, but in maturity emotionally and physically a peer. While the other campers were splashing in the water, engaging in pre-adolescent romance (which means, at that age, simply being physically near a person of the other gender) and focusing on what typical kids do, Dominyk and his friend were playing "war" (always interesting in a United Methodist gathering because our typical stance on issues of war and peace place us in the "peace" camp), running off together on some great adventure and engaging in a world shared by only their two young minds.
As the Camp Dean it was my responsibility to organize the yearly Camp Talent Show, so I was a bit put off when Dominyk and his friend came bounding up to me to ask, "Dean Bart, can we be in the talent show?" I responded gently and kindly, "Let's talk about that. What are you thinking you might do?"
"We'd like to do a drama of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus."
My surprise rendered me speechless, evidently for a longer period of time than even I was aware, because the next prodding words I heard were, "Well, what do you think? Can we do that?"
"Yes, you may."
"Well, can you help us get what we need for it?"
More silence on my part. What in the world was I going to be able to do in order to help these two behaviorally challenged boys re-create what by all accounts is the epicenter of the Christian faith experience? "Ummm. I'm sorry I can't help you with that. Because I have to emcee the Talent Show as Camp Dean, you'll have to find some other adults to assist you." The words felt cheap coming from mouth, and I cringed inwardly at my own unwillingness to be party to their plans.
"That's fine. We'll just ask [one of the other counselors] to help us."
"Great. If they say 'no,' let me know, and I'll see what I can do."
That was the last I heard from them. They invited another adult, who willingly assisted them, and they spent hours the following afternoon with cardboard boxes and markers. Their final preparations took place after dinner in anticipation of the Talent Show at 8:00 PM.
Minutes before the talent show they ran up to me, breathless with anticipation. "When does it start? We're not late are we?"
I assured them that they were right on time. Not knowing how things might go, I scheduled them for the middle of the program. A few minutes later as we began the program, I reminded the audience (comprised of the other 4th, 5th and 6th graders who chose not to participate) that our goal was to support one another. Our job was not to critique, to decide who was best or worst or to evaluate. Our job was to enjoy what others had prepared and to support them. My goal, of course, was to prepare them for the performance from the "two peas in a pod." I worried that my son and his friend would be embarrassed or derided or made to feel inferior, and my goal was to ensure they were treated respectfully. I probably pushed the group too hard, but as parents of special needs kids know, you want to do all you can to buffer negative social interactions for your kids, especially when they are trying hard to do their best and it just doesn't measure up to what others are doing.
The first four acts were fine, appropriate expressions of late-elementary children's abilities. The acts were met with appropriate applause and courteous responses, which made me feel better about what was to come. But I was still a bit worried as I introduced the "crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus."
The lights were turned out and as the counselor working with them read words from the Gospel, Dominyk and his friend re-enacted the crucifixion of Jesus. The cardboard figures were crosses, which Dominyk's friend dragged ceremoniously behind him. Standing in front of his cross, his friend prepared his hands as Dominyk drew back his huge hammer (it was actually a metal carpenter's square, and a large one at that) and solemnly drove imaginary spikes into the wrists of the Lord. His friend uttered the final words of Jesus upon the cross, "It is finsihed," as again the lights fell. Seconds later the lights were brought up full and "Mary" began to look for her Lord, who answered her plaintive cries with, "Mary, it is I!" at which point Mary shrieked with joy (our daughter Mercedes was Mary, and she is really quite dramatic), embracing "Jesus," as the audience cheered.
And it was cheering of a sincere kind. It was not dutiful, nor was it canned. It was genuine. And it touched me deeply. Of the ten acts, Dominyk's and his friend's was one of two with remotely a spiritual message, a message these two boys seemed to understand perhaps better than their peers.
Perhaps it is because these two peas in a pod have known what it means to be rejected. Or maybe it was because they are comfortable enough in their own world to trust the Gospel words of hope that many of us fritter away due to social pressure or intellectual doubt or experiential disappointment.
But whatever the reason, on that camp night four days ago, my son and his friend preached a better sermon in three minutes than I will tomorrow in twenty. And in those moments once again God reminded me why I am an adoptive father of children with special needs, for often they are to me, unbeknownst to themselves, the very face of God.