Tuesday, June 28, 2011

What is "Normal" Anyway?

Websters defines "normal" as 'the usual, average. or typical'.  Personally, I don't think I could or would even try to label anyone or anything as "normal" in today's world.  And quite frankly, isn't "normal" a little boring anyway?  Recently, I had a wonderful experience that challenged my view of "normal" and should yours too. On one of the first weekends of the summer, my boys and I headed to the mountains as counselors and mentors for a camp for middle and high school students with autism. The camp serves to provide these students with a typical camp experience with activities such as horseback riding, hiking, archery, rock climbing, swimming and canoeing.  As an educator who has worked with children on the autism spectrum for over 20 years, there are some facts I felt I knew well.  Such as ~ students with autism may have challenges with communication and social skills; they may have difficulty handling sensory stimulation and they really like routines.   Pair that with a weekend in the mountains with over 60 children, 90 degree temperatures, bunk beds in a cabin, a shared bathroom, a varied daily routine, all kinds of flying things buzzing around, different foods in a noisy mess hall, wearing a name tag, and exposure to LOTS of new expectations.  A recipe for meltdown for sure!  Right?  Let's just say I had my doubts about how this was going to go and had prepared myself for whatever I might have to handle as a counselor.  But guess what?  I didn't witness one major or minor "meltdown" the entire weekend!  What I saw instead were kids singing karaoke, kids having a water balloon fight, kids putting on a harness and climbing a rock wall, kids canoeing around a lake, kids making s'mores around a campfire, kids laughing and running and trying new things just like "normal" campers would.  All of these children handling all kinds of sensory input, navigating social challenges with peer mentors, and 'going with the flow' of a new routine.  I don't think I stopped smiling or laughing all weekend, and my boys made comments like "I wish John went to my school.  We would be good friends." or "Did you see Sarah climb that wall?  She was amazing!".  As I began to reflect on the weekend, I started wondering what was different?  What made this weekend, which should have been immensely challenging for these kids, so "normal" for them?  My conclusion is that they were all allowed to be the unique individuals that they are and were embraced for the little "quirks" that they had.  For that weekend, it didn't matter if a child carried around an elephant or if another child had to have his salad in a green bowl.  Everyone was given permission to be themselves and it worked!  This camp was one of the most "normal" experiences I've had in a long time.  I think there's a lesson in there for all of us, don't you?  So, what is "normal" anyway?  Personally, I'm not really looking for it!  I think that normal is way overrated and much less exciting.  Who's with me? :-)

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