As the mom of four Au-Somely unique children, I’m always trying to find the right path, the right therapies, and the right connections for them. Sometimes those connections are obvious and easy to come across, but others aren’t as clear.
My 18-year-old son graduated from our homeschool in May 2022, and we began this journey of having a child who wasn’t ready to move into the world of independence, but he was longing to fit in somewhere. He has a full-time job, but he isn’t able to drive. He has friends at work, but they are not in his age range. They understand his special abilities and his needs, but they aren’t able to provide the close-knit social relationships he so longed for.
There were multiple days that we struggled with conversations, where he yelled at me that he just wanted to “be normal.” He wanted to drive, have friends, and be a typical 18-year-old. He would cry. I would cry, and I attempted at every turn to share with him why he was special and why we had to work to protect him in a very different way than his similarly aged peers.
When I became an Autism Resource Specialist, I learned about the Adult and Teen Retreat weekends at Camp Royall. I dug a little deeper into these programs, and I was surprised to learn that these weekends were designed for folks just like my Caine! Caine generally has low support needs, but socially, he’s about 3-4 years behind his biological age.
I immediately signed him up for a retreat, and he was both a little nervous and ecstatic at the same time. The communication from the camp staff was amazing, and I was tickled with the information provided to me as a parent.
On that first retreat weekend, we checked our packing list twice to ensure nothing was forgotten, and we loaded up as a family to drive the hour and forty minutes from our home to Camp Royall. We were greeted with a smiling face at the gate and clear instructions to get to Caine’s cabin. His siblings got their goodbye hugs in, and I squeezed him a little extra tight because this was probably scarier for me than it was for him.
As an autism mom, I worried not just that he might get homesick but about whether he would make connections or not. Would he get along with others? Would he have an anxiety attack? Would he have a meltdown? Would he miss the familiarity of home? Would he eat well? Would he advocate for himself? Would he come back out of sorts? Would he get off his routine and be in a static emotional state for the next week? Was this investment going to pay off for him and our family? Would he call? Would the kids there be like him or make him feel like he was out of place? The list goes on and on, but if you’re reading this, you can surely relate to all these concerns.
On Sunday morning, I anxiously drove in the rain back to camp to pick him up. I wondered when I got there what condition he would be in. He had communicated quite openly with me over the weekend and appeared to have a good time, but I was expecting the unexpected.
When I pulled up to the gate, I stated that I was there to pick up Caine. The smiling face at the gate said, “Oh, Caine! I think he really enjoyed himself this weekend! He had a lot of fun!”
There was something special in that initial pickup greeting because they remembered him. They knew him, and he had left an impression that was positive. This warmed my mama heart so very much.
I pulled down to the cabin where he was waiting with his bag and a big smiling face. He gave me a big hug, said goodbye to his camp counselors and co-campers and we loaded the car. He got in the passenger seat, and I will never forget the first statement he made to me as we drove away. He said, “I never realized how autism affects everyone differently. We all have our own unique things, but we all have something in common that binds us.”
All these years and all my efforts, all the experience I have as an advocate, a parent, and a resource specialist, I couldn’t get through to him something he gained at the adult retreat in his first weekend. My heart was about to explode with joy! I thought at that moment that if he gained nothing else from the weekend, that was enough for me.
As we drove the country roads heading back home, Caine engaged me in conversation. This wasn’t the typical one-sided conversation where he would talk about things important to him and then zone out, but this was back and forth conversation. He was in tune and not once on the long drive home did I turn the radio on. We talked, we laughed, he shared about the campers he met and a new friend he had made. We stopped at a store on the way home to get a soft drink, and when I came out of the restroom, he had already checked out. He bought a phone charger for next month’s camp retreat weekend so he wouldn’t have to borrow mine and purchased both our sodas with his own money. He opened the door for me, and I was so full of joy. I wondered who this amazing young man was standing before me. We have had great days and special moments like this, but this was different. There was a pep in his step and a new confidence.
The Saturday after the retreat, Caine and I were heading to a check-up appointment with his primary care doctor. On the way there, his phone rang. He said, “It’s my friend from camp. Can I take this?”
I was elated! In a generation where so many just text, to see that not only had he made a real connection, but this connection was CALLING him was amazing! He excitedly answered the phone, and I listened to these two like-minded folks have a productive phone call and make plans to talk later to line up a time to game online together. Caine had a friend – a real friend that understood and related to him, a friend that valued him just as he is, a friend he would see at the next retreat.
Adult retreats have changed our lives. Caine currently attends these retreats monthly, and it’s something he has marked on his calendar. He so looks forward to them, and he loves sharing with us his new friendships and new skills after each retreat. Last month, he made a sorbet in a cooking lesson and couldn’t wait to send me pictures of his creation!
If you’re looking for a place for your teen or adult to fit in and find their place, please seek out these retreat weekends. There is so much more available there for them than you could imagine!
Cindy Martin is an Autism Resource Specialist in the Triangle region. Autism Resource Specialists are available to help individuals and families in every county of North Carolina. To be connected to the Autism Resource Specialist near you, please fill out this form.
Camp Royall: A Place for Teens to Connect
Tags: adult retreat, ASNC, autism, autism asperger parenting tips, autism communication, autism nc, autism resources, Autism Society of North Carolina, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Camp Royall