SALT LAKE CITY — For almost a century now, Scouting has given boys a chance to try new things, serve others and build leadership skills. Boys with autism can benefit from this training and get a boost to their self-confidence. That is why the Great Salt Lake Council decided to create a Scout troop specifically for boys with autism.
On a spring evening in April, the seven boys in the troop that started meeting last October gathered to work on their knot-tying and string-cutting skills. While they were not in the mountains for this campout, they were learning skills they will need to survive in the wilderness.
"So, we're camping somewhere where we can be safe and they can sort of get their feet wet and find out what's going on," said Tammy Wilson, special-needs chairwoman for the Great Salt Lake Council.
In fact, this newly formed troop of boys with autism is finding out what it's like to set up camp in Wilson's backyard.
"They are boys that have been left out of regular Scouting units," Wilson said.
They were lost and overlooked when it came to basic Scouting activities. Laura Falcon is an autism paraprofessional who has worked with the troop.
"They don't usually get this opportunity because if they go to a troop with regular ed kids, then they never get to set up the tents because they're too slow," said Falcon.
Steve Knowlden is a father of a Scout with autism and is part of the staff supporting this campout in Riverton.
"We teach them at their own pace and they still learn the same skills, same requirements, they just have a little bit specialized way of doing it," he said.
It is that specialized, often time-consuming way of learning that can frustrate some Scouts and Scout leaders who have not worked with or don't know anyone with autism.
"They don't have patience to teach these kids. These kids need a little bit more time to teach, but they can do it," Falcon said.
In fact, Wilson is amazed at the boys' early understanding of Scouting.
They are boys that have been left out of regular Scouting units. We found out about a year ago that these boys were sort of lost.
–Tammy Wilson, special-needs chairwoman for the Great Salt Lake Council
"These boys have just been progressing so fast, and they're so excited, they feel so wanted and so needed in this unit," she said.
David Lyon is the Scoutmaster for this unique troop. He has two boys with autism and could not be more excited to lead this group of young men.
"We're trying to teach the boys to be leaders, trying to teach them the leadership skills as a normal troop would have and then develop that so that the boys run the troop. I'm just here to supervise and advise," Lyon said.
Clint Meacham has enjoyed watching his son, who is autistic, experience Scouting the same way he did as a boy.
"Trying to learn to get merit badges, maybe get his Eagle and try to be self-reliant," Meacham said.
Most of the boys have already earned three merit badges. And at their spring campout, they're were learning how to cook for themselves and clean up for dinner after a day outdoors. Finally, with tin foil meals in hand and tents pitched for the night, the boys were ready to gather around the campfire.
"And you can see they like to be together, they have a great time," Wilson said. "This is what Scouting is all about."
Scoutmaster Lyon believes the troop can grow to about 14 boys before the Great Salt Lake Council will need to consider forming another troop for boys with autism. That growth potential is out there, but before new troops can be formed, parents need to step up and train for the roles of Scoutmaster, assistant Scoutmaster and committee members.
Contributing: Andrew Wittenberg