Amber Perry wrote a wonderful article about the KindTree Autism Rocks camp, a fun and relaxing trip where autistics "can just be themselves, free to stim, socialize with others without having to worry about ridicule or having any kind of authority forced on them, eat food that suits their dietary needs, enjoy plenty of arts and crafts and other activities to ground them and exercise their never-ending minds." I've gone twice before and it was a lot of fun, just as her article describes. I was excited to volunteer this year. I want to get more involved in the autism community, and of course thought this was a great way to do it. I was, however, disappointed to find out I would not be able to volunteer, or even go at all. It is upsetting to find out that a community that prides itself on being accepting of all types of people, can truly fail to be.
I wasn't allowed to go because the camp doesn't permit service dogs.
When I attended camp years before I didn't have my service dog yet. A service dog is a dog which is trained to do specific tasks that aid a disabled person. A service dog, by law, must be allowed to go with their owner anywhere the public is allowed. Camp Baker Boy Scout camp is where KindTree's retreat is held, and due to some loopholes in the law the Boy Scouts are legally able to ban service dogs because they identify as a private club. This is like banning a person with a cane, or a wheelchair, or insulin to treat diabetes. And because the Boy Scouts have decided to grant KindTree’s Autism Rocks camp access to Camp Baker, it leaves little leverage for KindTree to advocate on behalf of its community members for ADA law without risk of dislodgement.
Service dogs are a life-saver for thousands of people with a variety of disabilities. These dogs can be trained to smell the breath of a diabetic in order to assess their glucose level. They are trained to open doors, pick things up, aid in balance, alert people of imminent seizures, and call for help. They can provide a focus point for someone who is overwhelmed by their environment or events going on; this is called grounding and it's what my dog does for me. From an outsider’s view it looks like an excited puppy jumping up and down, being extremely adorable, and licking my face continuously. But even though T’Pol is an incredibly cute dog she has been trained to act that way. She is small, and easily fits onto my chest where she is trained to lay down just beneath my chin so she has perfect access to kiss my nose. When T’Pol does this I can focus on her, ignore the world, try to get my head together, and enjoy life.
We are all familiar with meltdowns. Sometimes our brains just can't deal with the overload of information the world offers. I have found, personally, that I can't focus on just something, but my sentient 3lb ball of furry energy can force me to focus by going, "Hey! They don't matter! Look at me! I'm so cute and soft!" I can sit and concentrate on her and then after a short time get back in there and deal with that horrible bright light called sunshine and those awful florescent bulbs. I can cope better when my neighbor decides he enjoys blasting "music" with overly heavy bass at odd hours, and I can make it through all the different kinds of social interactions I’m presented with without shutting down and running away. A simple addition of a fuzzy friend in a blue vest (not required by law, but often used to mark service dogs) is all I need to calm down instead of freaking out to the point of exhaustion, resulting in the need to sleep for the next 6 hours or more.
Not everyone on the autism spectrum uses service dogs, but many do for issues caused by autism as well as other disabilities not connected to autism. They are part of the autism community, but they are not welcome at this amazing, so-called accepting retreat so many of you look forward to all year. The Boy Scouts have been in the news numerous times for discriminating against a variety of people. Most likely you have heard about the lawsuits pertaining to the LGBTQ community, however there are others affecting wheelchair users, blind and deaf folks, as well as Down Syndrome and other disabilities.
I understand why KindTree felt they couldn’t press the Boy Scouts to support ADA law so I could attend this year. They had all of you to protect too. The needs of the many can certainly outweigh the needs of a few, but sometimes the needs of a few represent the needs of the many, and their rights. Should we be having our most beloved event held at place owned by such an unaccepting, discriminatory group? I don't have a solution. It’s a tough thing; where else would we have the retreat? I am sure it would take some searching, but I have to believe there are other places where everyone truly will be accepted.
As we continue to learn and advance and grow as an autism community, so will the tools we use to help us navigate life, like service dogs, giving us a wider degree of access and security in our crazy world. I will not be the last person to be denied access to an otherwise safe and accepting place I have every right to be. I sincerely hope we as a community find a path that allows the freedom we’ve fought so hard to find come to fruition for everyone, fairly and equally.