Kai’s been going to the same Park District day camp for four years. It’s close, it’s cheap, and we’ve always had a great experience. The first year, I dropped him off on the first day with a, “He has autism, ‘kthanksbye!” and ran out the door to do whatever it was I was late for.
And if he wasn’t a perfect camper—see his tendency to wander—his counselors tended to fall in love with him, thereby ensuring that he was well taken care of. The campers swim, they go on field trips to other parks, they ride bikes, and Kai always seemed to enjoy it. We never really needed an aide at camp (an inclusion aide, they call it), because it’s about 10,000 times easier to get Kai to go to the playground than it is to get him to write a topic sentence and four supporting ones.
This year, Kai has been less enthusiastic about camp. I chalked this up to him missing his camp counselor from last year, Vanessa. Kai had a little crush on Vanessa, which I know not because he told me, but because he always said her name in a breathy sigh: Vanessaaaah. Apparently, his new counselor, Luis, didn’t have the same je ne sais quoi (and I think we all sais quoi).
A few weeks ago, I noticed that Kai had a scratch on his forehead.
“Where’d you get that scratch?” I asked.
He told me he didn’t have time for my questions. This was fine, because I also didn’t have time for my questions, as I was running out the door. Scott, however, got the full story out of him, though Scott said that Kai didn’t wat to tell him at all.
Some kids at camp had tried to take his hat, and scratched his forehead in the process.
“Kai,” I asked later, “were you guys playing and that’s why they took your hat?”
“No,” he said.
“Were they mean-teasing you?” I asked.
I was silent for a long moment. Kai was lost on the iPad.
“Do you want to keep going to camp?” I asked.
“I will take a day off,” he said.
“You’re not playing on your iPad all day,” I said to him.
He sighed. “Fine, then I’ll go to camp.”
Autistic kids are great targets for bullies. Sometimes they can’t distinguish between genuine friends and manipulative jerks. Sometimes they don’t have language to tell on their tormentors. Sometimes they act weird and do weird things, making them easy fodder for someone looking for power.
Kai’s had a lot of support around spotting a bully. He’s had IEP goals about it, in addition to units on bullying in his social skills group. At school he has an aide, Dalila, who can be eyes and ears, plus they watch him like a hawk there. But camp is different, especially this year.
I wondered about these hat-stealers. Kai couldn’t tell me who they were or even whether they were boys or girls. I worried. But he kept saying that he liked camp and wanted to go back. I took him at his word. He would tell me if he didn’t want to go back, I reasoned.
The next time I dropped Kai off, I spoke to Luis about the incident and asked him to keep an eye out.
Later day when I picked Kai up, I looked around at the group of 9-year-olds and wondered which of them had tried to steal Kai’s hat. I picked out one kid, a beefy kid who was challenging the other boys to an arm wrestling match. He got one taker, and immediately won the match, but…
“You cheated,” I said to him.
He looked at me, surprised.
“You’re supposed to keep your elbow on the table. That’s regulation.”
“Oh,” he said to the kid who lost. “Sorry.”
Of course, I had no idea whether this kid was a hat-stealer or not. He seemed like a nice kid, actually. Kai was sitting right next to him reading a book and everyone seemed to coexist peacefully. He said goodbye to us when we left.
Kai’s scratch healed. Luis seemed genuinely happy to see Kai every day.
We moved on with our lives.
And then it all went south.
Our friend Monica picked the kids up from camp last Tuesday, and warned me that Kai was in a state because he’d lost his hat.
“Lost his hat” was how it was presented to Monica. If you know Kai, you know that he’s never without his hat—even in family portraits—so I definitely understood his distress.
“How did you lose your hat?” I asked when I’d caught up with him. “When did you have it last?”
“At the pool,” he said, miserably.
I figured as much. He’d once lost all his clothes at the pool when he put them in a locker and then didn’t remember which one. I figured the same thing happened that day.
“Is it in the lost and found? Did you check?”
“Just forget about it,” Kai said.
“And your sunglasses?” I asked. He had won a pair of sunglasses with a crazy lightning bolt attached to them at a crane game in an arcade.
Kai made a sound like, “Hunnnorrrrl.” I could hear the catch in his voice. He was near tears.
“Kai,” I said, “I can help you but you have to tell me what happened.”
“I don’t have time,” he said.
“Kai,” I said, beginning to wonder if this was something more than just losing his hat. “What happened?”
“A kid took them out of my locker.”
“And then what?”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” he said.
I started driving. “I’m trying to help you get your hat and sunglasses back,” I said. “Please tell me.”
Kai started to cry, whether from reluctance to tell me or reluctance to relive the situation or frustration—or all three—I don’t know. “I was using a locker, and someone took my hat and sunglasses out of my locker, and wouldn’t let me use it, and I tried to get back in and he was blocking me, and…I bit him.”
“Oh, my God. You bit a kid?” I asked.
I processed this for a moment.
“A man picked me up.”
“I don’t know.”
Alarm bells were clanging by now. “One of the counselors?”
“I tried to kick him, but only got one good kick,” Kai said.
“Jesus,” I said, deciding to let that go for the moment. “Then what happened?”
“I got a timeout for all of swimming.”
“Jesus,” I said again.
Now, for those of you following this at home, I’m going to sum up Kai’s story for you.
- Kai was changing for the pool, and had chosen a locker. Locker number 45, to be exact. And
- Some other kid decided that he wanted Kai’s locker, and removed Kai’s hat and sunglasses from it. This upset Kai very much, and he tried to force his stuff back into the locker.
- The other kid was preventing him from doing this, and
- Kai bit him.
- Eventually a counselor picked Kai up and carried him from the locker room, but not before Kai got a kick in at the counselor.
- Kai had to sit in time out during swimming, and, in the melee,
- Kai’s hat and sunglasses went missing.
- Oh, and lest we forget, this was all presented to us as “Kai lost his hat.”
I parked the car in front of the swimming pool.
“Stay here,” I said to Kai, and went up to the guard. Not the lifeguard, the guy whose job it is to make sure you’re not packing heat at the pool. Yes, that’s a thing.
“My son lost his hat and sunglasses today. He’s a camper. Have you seen them?”
The guy looked around his office.
“No,” he said. “I have some towels, and this old t-shirt.”
I looked around the office, too.
Feeling defeated and full of confused emotions, I turned to go.
“There’s a hat in the garbage in the men’s locker room,” the guard offered.
I turned to look at him.
“Could you go get it?” I asked in a clipped tone. Obviously this was Kai’s hat. I had no idea why the guard hadn’t started with that little tidbit of information.
He returned shortly, brandishing Kai’s green Minecraft hat, holding it away from him as though it was thoroughly offensive.
“What about the sunglasses? They’re blue with a lightning bolt on them.”
He looked like I’d suggested he clean toilets with his toothbrush.
“But,” he protested, “it’s the garbage.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “I’ll go in there if you won’t do it,” I said.
He sighed. “Fine,” he said, and went back into the locker room. He returned seconds later.
“Not there,” he said, his eyes everywhere but on mine.
And though I knew he hadn’t looked, I decided that the hat was victory enough, and left. I had bigger fish to fry.
I handed Kai his hat when I got in the car.
“What the fuck?” Kai asked.
And because he’d used it appropriately, and because these were my exact sentiments, I let that go, too.
To be continued.