Last summer I worked at a camp for children with special needs. I know this sounds like a cliché, but it truly changed my life and the way I view the world, including how I view food. Autism is a condition that we know very little about, but the bonds I made with my campers taught me more about my life than I can describe. In celebration of Autism Awareness Month, here are the most important things I learned about food from my campers.
1. Condiments can make or break a dish
Sometimes it is okay to eat a mayonnaise and mustard sandwich. A lot of my campers were very selective about what they would eat, so condiments were a great way to compromise. Turkey sandwich? No. Turkey sandwich with mayonnaise, ketchup, and mustard? Yes.
2. Utensils are always optional
People with autism often are sensitive to different sensory inputs. In some cases, this could mean that a child wears a weighted vest in order to help them calm down, or will ask for pressure on their hands, but this can also extend to mealtime.
Sometimes food might just feel better when it’s all mashed together. Or maybe it is better enjoyed when eaten with your hands. Anything goes, as long as the food ends up in your mouth.
3. Washing your hands is not optional
Utensils may be optional, but hand washing isn’t. Before meals, after meals, before bed, after waking up, basically anytime there is a sink and soap. Camp is a busy place with lots of people, and you can never be too careful about spreading germs.
This applies outside of the camp world too. You never know who touched that light switch in your dorm’s bathroom before you, and so wash your hands before you eat. Seriously, just do it.
4. Don’t be afraid of trying new things
One of my campers came to camp eating only two things: salad with ranch dressing, and mashed potatoes. Luckily our dining hall staff was very accommodating, but I will never forget the moment she tried rice and realized that she liked it. Even if you think you don’t like something, it doesn’t hurt to try – you might discover your new favorite food.
5. Food really does bring everyone together
My summer was exhausting, frustrating, and demanding, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. Nothing can compare to the feeling of success when everyone was ready for the day and sat down at breakfast, or the bonds I formed with my campers and co-counselors over milk and cookies before bed each night.
I highly recommend applying to work at a camp similar to mine if you are at all interested in working with kids with special needs, or if you just want to have a wonderful and fulfilling summer job while making a real difference. If not, there are so many other ways to get involved with this community during Autism Awareness Month, including simply spreading awareness and acceptance.