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The three young boys in blue shirts paid tribute to the flag. Then the lanky kid patted his smaller comrade on the shoulder and said, “You did a good job.”
Preston, the tall Cub Scout, spoke the words haltingly, enunciating each syllable. But he said them, giving encouragement and showing compassion without prompt. That’s a big deal for the 9-year-old.
Preston didn’t speak at all until he was 5. And a few months ago, he came home crying, saying he couldn’t ever be a Scout.
Preston is autistic.
But he now has the same chance as any other kid to be a Scout, thanks to the efforts of his mother and two other Vancouver parents.
The boys who gathered at River Rock Church on Northeast 136th Avenue this week are members of the state’s first registered Scout group just for boys on the autism spectrum. The pack formed last month and already has drawn interest from Scouts around the country and even the world.
The Scouts’ fourth-ever meeting drew a dozen boys and their parents. That number is expected to grow, as it is the only such group between Salem,
Ore., and the Canadian border, its founders said.
There is no single symptom of autism. The disorder covers a spectrum of behaviors that may include being overly sensitive to light, noise or odors; repeating the same body movements over and over; developing language slowly or not at all; and having difficulty with social interactions, according to the National Library of Medicine.
Boys are four times more likely to have a form of autism than are girls, according to the library.
The spectrum includes a milder form called Asperger’s syndrome. Severely autistic individuals may be unable to speak or otherwise communicate at all.
“There are things that come naturally to us that don’t come naturally to these kids,” said Corinne Weaver, a behavioral therapist accompanying one of the Cub Scouts this week.
Those things include fundamental routines, such as being social and showing emotions. What autistic kids show outwardly often doesn’t match what they’re feeling, Weaver said.
They might seem angry or sad when they’re actually feeling happy, for example. And they can’t read feelings, which makes it very difficult for them to interact.
That lack of emotional insight can make interactions frightening, and autistic kids often show fight-or-flight responses when situations become overwhelming to them. That could include tantrums or screaming.
The good news is that autistic kids can learn how to read and display emotions properly, Weaver said. Low-pressure social situations -- such as a Scout outing, say -- are good for that, she said.
After the flag ceremony, the youngest Scouts -- the Tiger Cubs -- gathered in one of the back rooms at River Rock Church. It was time for an introductory lesson. John Krejcha, co-founder of the pack, kept the instructions very brief. For five minutes he explained how to salute, gave a pop quiz on the Cub Scouts’ motto -- Do Your Best -- and showed them the not-so-secret two-fingered sign.
But even those few minutes proved difficult for some in the small group. One boy plugged his ears for the entire lecture, despite Krejcha’s soft-spoken tones. Another boy got up repeatedly to launch into loud responses to whatever had just been said.
The gathered boys were a microcosm of the spectrum, save for the disorder’s most severe cases. Different children participated at different levels, but Krejcha was able to engage everyone.
He’s the father of two autistic boys.
One boy started screaming inconsolably after a parent tried to separate him from a noisy toy. Krejcha earlier had announced that a quiet room was available for anyone who “wants to chill out.” The pack leaders had brought industrial-strength earmuffs so boys could block all sensory input in the darkened room. The screaming boy took a timeout and soon rejoined the group.
The boys played games in two groups for the next 20 minutes or so. This pack meets for briefer periods than do most Boy Scouts to accommodate the short attention span typical in autistic kids.
Then everyone gathered in the church lobby for some snacks. It had been a successful evening. Not just for the kids -- for the adults, too.
Tired of apologizing
This pack’s meetings aren’t a drop-off service. A parent must stay with the child for the evening. That’s mostly because of the special needs of the kids, but it also serves to get the parents some much-needed time around adults who understand what they go through every day.
“Our kids look normal on the outside and people expect them to act normally,” said Deanna Pehrson, Preston’s mother and the co-founder of the pack. “When (our kids) don’t, it’s always …”
John Krejcha and his wife, Karen, knew exactly what Pehrson was about to say.“Why can’t you control your kid?” all three said in near-unison, quoting the comment they’ve all heard when their autistic children have a meltdown in the supermarket, for example.
“It takes so much energy to have to apologize all the time,” Pehrson said.
Parents of autistic children often are shy about taking their kids to group settings because they’ve had so many negative experiences, she said.
Lisa Sarver brought her boy, Trey, here after a teacher at his school told her about the new pack. One of her Christmas resolutions was to get the boy more involved in social situations. It seemed to be working -- the shy boy carried the flag in front of everyone on Thursday. The group turned out to be beneficial for her, too.
“I don’t even know anybody yet, but I already feel supported,” Sarver said.
Pehrson has tried to get Preston established in Scouting for more than a year. She grew up in a Scouting family, and the boy was interested. But finding a group that could accommodate him was another matter.
Pack leaders tried but were ill-prepared for the extra attention Preston needs. Pehrson called district leaders, asking for help. Finally, someone pointed her to a seminar taught by another parent of an autistic child -- John Krejcha. He and Karen had just started a nonprofit -- Autism Empowerment -- to provide support for those touched by autism. John came to scouting five years ago and has developed programs to help incorporate more autistic children in the organization.
Scouting is good for autistic kids, he said. They like the structure and having set goals to work on to get to the next level, to the next badge.
Unfortunately, the rules governing Scout meetings don’t work well for them. Autistic children need visual aids and operate at a different pace than other kids.
A few months ago, Preston came home from a regular Scout meeting frustrated.
“He was crying and said, ‘I guess I can never be a Cub Scout,’” his mother remembered. “I was like, ‘Oh, no, no, no.’”
The sensory friendly pack was born soon after.
The response has been great. Therapists and teachers have offered support. And Scout packs from around the country and even other countries have called Krejcha for advice on how to accommodate autistic boys.
The pack founders want their kids to grow up to be independent and to have a good time along the way.
The group’s plans sound like usual Boy Scout fare -- hikes, camping trips, tree planting and food drives.
“And tomahawk throwing!” John Krejcha offered enthusiastically.
Pehrson and his wife shot him incredulous looks.
“Maybe we’ll have to work up to that one,” Krejcha allowed.