Working abroad with Asperger’s: 10 life lessons I learned from Kindercamp
People often ask each other where their ‘second home’ is. When I tell them that mine is the Jugendgruppenzeltplatz on Falckensteinerstrand, they look at me funny.
This is Kindercamp– a watersports camp run by the German Methodist Church. It serves up to 80 children each year (followed immediately by Jugendcamp for 60 teenagers), teaching them surfing, sailing, kayaking and more in a caring Christian environment; camped on a beach just metres from the best sailing waters in Europe. I’ve been coming here since 2006.
So, how did an English guy like me get involved in all this? Ted. He and his wife Mary inspired far more people than just me. They had some German friends over during one of their camps, and not long later their German friends went back and started Kindercamp. In 2006 Ted, Mary and I were invited to join them with some of our English kids, and I ended up being a repeat visitor.
- I’m the only English guy there.
- I’m the only one whose German isn’t perfect (if you count Southern German as perfect).
- As far as I can tell, I’m the only autistic person there.
- Oh, and coeliac disease forces me to go gluten-free in the land of bread and beer, so the kitchen staff have to make extra effort to accommodate me.
In order for me to add to this camp rather than take away from it, I have to work extremely hard.
So if this camp offers so many opportunities to go terribly wrong for me, why doesn’t it?
- I do work extremely hard.
- It has gone wrong in the past. I’ve just learned from it.
As promised by the title, here are ten important lessons I’ve learned from my years at Kindercamp, through both the good times and the (very occasional) bad.
1: When people meet you halfway, the results can be awesome.
I strongly believe that people with autism should be ‘met halfway’. Usually, I mean that society needs to make a genuine effort to meet us where we are, rather than simply tolerate us because they have to.
Occasionally, I mean that we need to do the moving too, rather than expect everyone else to go the whole way. (That part, obviously, depends on the individual’s capabilities, circumstances, and often anxieties too.)
Right now, I mean both at the same time.
At my very first Kindercamp, way back in 2006, I had forgotten most of the German I had learned at school. And the German I was taught (which focussed more on buying train tickets and booking hotel rooms) was totally inadequate for socialising with Germans and working with their kids.
The staff were very quick to notice that my German was crap, but that I was trying very hard. So they met me halfway. Everything that needed translating was translated for me, but at the same time I was given opportunities to reinforce my German.
Ted would later say that one of his proudest moments of knowing me came halfway through the camp, when the German staff were handing out badges for achievements. Out of nowhere, I stood up and gave a short speech about how brave this nine-year-old boy was (for having the confidence to play the drum in the camp band in front of everyone), and presented him with his badge. Everything I said was in German… one week after literally forgetting the phrase for “what’s your name?”.
If they’d not translated anything, I’d have crashed and burned in that camp. If they’d insisted on everything being in English, I’d have learned nothing.
As it was, they met me where I needed to be met. And to this day, Kindercamp 2006 remains the best two weeks of my whole life.
Nowadays, I can go for days at a time at Kindercamp without saying an English word. But they still translate anything that I haven’t understood. After nine years they are still ‘meeting me halfway’, although they don’t have to travel quite as far these days.
There was only one year that they got it wrong…
2: Underestimating can patronise, and overestimating can crush.
The worst things about amazing movies are their rubbish sequels. Some movies can be so mind-blowingly incredible that the follow-ups are doomed from the start. I don’t think Terminator 3 was a bad film at all, but the world hated it for not matching the first two.
So I returned to Kindercamp in 2007 with my expectations appropriately lowered. I hoped it would be good, but knew it would not match the epic awesomeness of 2006.
Sadly, this camp wasn’t a Terminator 3. It wasn’t even a Jurassic Park: The Lost World.
This camp was bloody Highlander 2- so bad that even its own subsequent movies pretend it doesn’t exist. (I do the same- I deliberately forget about 2007 every time I go back there.)
Why? Because the expectations of me were wrong. I returned to Falckensteinerstrand as the sole Englishman (my youth group held their own camp that year), and people expected me to function alongside all the German staff without all the previous support. This led to me not having a clue about what was going on, and people thinking I was lazy since I wasn’t in the right places at the right times.
I have never been underestimated on that camp, which is brilliant. But being overestimated was horrible.
The moral of the story? Setting high targets is extremely important and can enable people to do great things (learning difficulties or not). But if you’re going to set huge targets, you’d better be on hand to offer support just in case they need it.
3: Comfort zones expand surprisingly easily, if you let them.
Skipping forward to 2014, and the craziest start to a camp I’ve ever had.
I arrived at Kindercamp a couple of days after it started, due to my youth group’s camp finishing in the Lake District the day before. (Yes, a week with teenagers in the Lake District then a fortnight in Falckensteinerstrand, with one night in between. I was a machine.)
When I arrived, I put my bags down and was greeted with: “ok Chris, tonight’s the Nachtwanderung [‘night-wander’: a game that involves completing tasks in a forest in the dead of night]. There are eight kids in your tent group, and they’re not the best-behaved bunch so they need you with them. Oh, by the way- they talk extremely fast in a foreign language, two of them have ADHD, and none of them have ever met you before. Have fun!”
Ok, that wasn’t literally what they said, but it would have been accurate.
The funny thing was, I was perfectly happy with it. The staff knew I would be. The Nachtwanderung came and went and I had no problem keeping control of those eight kids.
That night, it really struck me how much my comfort zone had expanded since my first Kindercamp. (For bonus points, bear in mind that my second bout of anxiety therapy was unceremoniously terminated a few weeks before Kindercamp 2014.)
A week later, I was unexpectedly driving a minibus full of kids up and down the Autobahn. It was my first ever time driving a minibus, or left hand drive, or on the
right wrong side of the road!
Part of the reason I ended up in the driving seat was because we were short on adults who met the terms of the insurance (being over 25 with a European Union driver’s license).
But the biggest reason was because I was willing to challenge myself. Heck, that’s one of the main reasons why I go to this camp at all.
Right at the start of my teaching course, when plenty of us were nervous about standing at the front of the classroom, we were given this word of advice from our course leader. It has stuck with me ever since.
Move out of your comfort zone, and your comfort zone will follow.
Trust me, as the weird kid with no leadership skills who grew up and passed that course, those words are true.
4: Difference and change are sometimes beautiful.
For an Aspie, I respond surprisingly well to change. I don’t know whether I just got lucky with my neurology, or whether the stress of change was beaten out by years of working with kids. (Flexibility is vital in teaching: some lessons are vastly improved by deviating from the plan halfway through, as long as you’re adapting to meet the children’s needs.)
But in my first Kindercamp, I found that the Germans ran camps very differently to back home.
- Staff versus kids football games are totally allowed (whilst banned in Britain for safety reasons). …And they get slightly competitive.
- Instead of saying grace before eating, they sing it. Always.
- It is perfectly acceptable to give shoulder-rides to the children while walking somewhere. As a teacher, this felt alien to me.
- It is also perfectly acceptable for a child to wake up a sleeping staff member by dumping a jellyfish on their face. And (sorry Jonathan), it’s also extremely funny.
So, with all these culture differences, how on Earth did I cope?
Because the camp was awesome!
The differences added to our experiences, rather than took away. When I made myself open to the possibility of things being different, I didn’t reach any forgone conclusions that any changes would have to be uncomfortable. Some changes are genuine improvements, and I was able to see them that way.
(In my opinion, there is far too much emphasis on how to help autistic people cope with change. There’s no discussion about even the slightest possibility of us enjoying change… and maybe that itself stops us from being encouraged to enjoy it.)
That said, it does help to find the things that are exactly the same. Like the children, for example.
People ask me what it’s like working with German kids. Honestly, it’s the same as working with kids in general, just in a different language. They stay awake whispering all night thinking the adults can’t hear them, they jump between loving the camp and suddenly being homesick, and they wear the same clothes five days running. They’re kids.
And since they’re the primary reason for the camp’s existence, their similarities make it easier to overlook some of the differences.
5: If you want to defeat your weaknesses, face them.
I often say that working on Kindercamp is like having Asperger’s twice: on top of struggling with non-verbal communication as I often do, being in Germany affects my verbal understanding too.
But I get on well as a staff member anyway, largely because:
- The kids are under no illusion about how much I care about them, even if my words are stunted and clumsy.
- Believe it or not, I’m actually extremely funny.
Or at least, funny by the kids’ standards. And never underestimate how far humour can take you.
But #3, the most significant one, is that I try very hard, regardless of my shortcomings.
In fact, if you want to improve your nonverbal communication, there’s no better way than working with children who don’t speak your language. It’s the best practice I’ve ever had.
I’ve already outlined the ways I’ve confronted my weaknesses on Kindercamp- diving into the language, presenting prizes to kids, and driving a wrong-sided minibus down a road with no legal speed limit.
Honestly, writing this article is opening my eyes to how much this camp has truly built me up.
6: As I always say, find a place where you can play to your strengths.
This is one of the very first pieces of advice I always give to autistic people. Or people in general.
Thanks largely to my youth group, movie editing is one of my strengths. (Our youngsters have made a horror flick with Teletubbies. We’ve also made a nice little movie called The Cuddly Games: our own version of The Hunger Games where the fighters were all cuddly toys. It really helps that my odd sense of humour aligns so well with theirs.)
Now, this camp has the onsite technology to make Tagesvideos (‘daily videos’, although strictly speaking they’re not daily). And in recent years, I’ve been in charge of them. I take a load of funny photos and videos during the day, edit them together over music, and show it to the kids last thing before bed.
In the Tagesvideos, I’ve found a place where I’m not only playing to my strengths, but also genuinely adding to the camp and the enjoyment of the kids. People are warmly appreciative of the work I do, and (just like those priceless moments when a child on the spectrum proves themselves capable of something that none of the adults in the room can do), it’s nice to be noticed for your talents rather than your setbacks.
7: You don’t need words to make friends!
This kid is awesome.
I met him for the first time last year, and we got on fantastically well. He was a cheeky lad with a wild but endearing sense of humour. I was a cheeky adult with a wild but endearing sense of humour. Awesomeness ensued.
This year, I was delighted when he came back. But the most striking moment of his arrival was when I spoke to his mother. She said “we’re so glad you’re here. All we’ve been hearing for the last three days is ‘I really hope Chris will be there again’.”
Think about that for a second. Last year, most of our conversations were very clumsy, and a lot of our communication was nonverbal. Yes, I speak German, but holding a conversation with an excitable eleven-year-old in a foreign language is tricky to keep up for two weeks.
But, he was excited to see me again. It wasn’t my words that did that.
Also, I’ll forever remember our first day in 2006, and the nerves of our teenagers as they entered a camp full of German kids, and suddenly remembered they knew zero German words between them.
They walked onto the volleyball court. A few metres away, one of the German lads picked up the volleyball and looked at them. They nodded, and a game spontaneously began.
Then others joined in. Loads of others. Everyone was enjoying themselves, playing and laughing in the same language.
Twenty minutes passed, then one of my boys came up to me and said “Chris, I think I’ve got more friends in Germany than I have in England!”
Yes, having communication difficulties can suck, whether it’s a foreign language barrier or a genuine speech difficulty. But just occasionally, words are overrated. (I’ve watched severely autistic nonverbal children making friends with each other, simply by communicating in the ways they’re comfortable with.)
8: Everything I said about appropriateness is true.
My last article talked about how appropriate and inappropriate depend on which part of the Earth you’re standing on. This camp proves my point, and it goes beyond shoulder-rides and jellyfish alarm clocks.
I spent my first two Kindercamps giving very dirty looks to any child I heard using the word “Scheiße!” (which means exactly what you think it does). …Then I learned that in Germany everybody says that word without a problem, kids included.
Of course, the Germans have exactly the same standards of moral right and wrong, despite appropriateness being as vague as usual.
Stick with right and wrong, everyone. You’ll get much further.
9: Saying goodbye never gets easier.
You’d think it would, after the literally thousands of kids I’ve said goodbye to over the years. But it doesn’t. You just find more effective ways of pretending you’re ok with it.
Autistic people are infamous for the totally false stereotype of not having empathy, and an inability to attach to people they care about. (For the record, failing to spot the signs of sadness is NOT the same as being unable to empathise with a sad person. Duh.)
I’ve actually found that the reverse is the problem. If I fitted the false stereotype, saying bye to the kids at the end of camp would be easy. But it’s not.
And I can tell you, from far too much experience, that the most painful part of saying goodbye to the children isn’t the thought that it may be goodbye forever. The most painful part is knowing that even if you do see them again, they won’t be the same people. They’ll be totally different humans to the ones you cared about in their past; taller, deeper-voiced people who happen to share some common memories with you. But the child will no longer exist.
But it’s worth keeping the faith that they’ll be just as awesome as adults. My staff partner for our tent group this year was someone I worked with when he was a child. It’s the same for half a dozen other staff too (and I’m trying to resist mentioning how old that makes me feel. Oops, too late.) Now they’re old enough to work on the camp themselves, and they haven’t lost any brilliance by venturing into adulthood.
The kid driving that car will be an awesome adult one day too. I’m sure of it.
10: Give us opportunities and watch what happens next.
I don’t even need to back this up with anything. You’ve just read an article by an autistic man who copes with enjoys working on a camp with 80 German children.
People can throw round phrases like ‘special needs’ and ‘learning difficulties’ as much as they want, but the principle is the same for all humans. Hide opportunities from people and they won’t develop. Offer them the right opportunities at the right time, and the results will surprise you.
Ok, the main points again.
- Autistic people should be met halfway, even if both sides need to move.
- Anyone who sets high targets should be on hand for support, in case the learner needs it.
- “Move out of your comfort zone, and your comfort zone will follow.”
- If you can, try to focus on enjoying change rather than just coping with it.
- Challenge your weaknesses until they stop being weaknesses.
- Like I said before, find a place where you can play to your strengths.
- Words aren’t the only way to communicate.
- Appropriate and inappropriate are still overrated.
- Saying goodbye is not easy, so don’t feel guilty when you find it difficult.
- You won’t believe what you’re capable of when the right opportunities come your way.
I want to tell you so much more.
I want to talk about how the staff are such a close group of friends: how I lived with two of them outside of camp for a week whilst in Germany for a chess tournament, and met up with several others while I was there.
I want to talk about the teenager who’s such a high-spirited clown that he literally went to hospital laughing at his own broken finger… yet the moment he sees a crying child he’ll drop everything to help them and doesn’t care which of his friends are watching. And all the other kids who are their own kinds of wonderful.
I want to talk about how the camp once saved my Christianity.
I want to tell you the story about the shooting stars.
I want to talk about that beautiful final evening, and the extra days I spent there after the kids had gone this year, simply to enjoy myself and explore the coast and have lunches of ice cream followed by fries with mayonnaise followed by a small bottle of Jägermeister because I’m an adult now and I get to call the shots.
I want to talk about how emotional I get when I realise that even though Ted and Mary are dead, their influence lives on with such joy and vibrance and beauty.
But of course, this is an article. Not a novel. So I’ll finish with this.
The Germans have the word ‘Heimat’ to describe what we sometimes use the word ‘home’ for- when talking about a place where the heart is, whether you live there or not. Like I said, mine is the Jugendgruppenzeltplatz on Falckensteinerstrand. Not only have I learned how to work abroad with autism, but the camp itself has become my Heimat.
And to any of my German friends who are reading this: danke sehr, dass ihr mir diese Gelegenheiten gegeben haben. Ich bin ein voller Person heutzutage, weil Kindercamp in mein Leben ist.
Gottes segen. Bis nächstes Jahr.
Chris Bonnello is an autism speaker, available to lead talks and training sessions from the perspective of an autistic former teacher. For further information please click here (opens in new window).
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