Tom's Blog -- December 2007



December,  2007  --

Recently I completed an unusual home visit.  The subject was a fifteen year old boy whose parents had described him as being defiant and out of control.  By parent description, he was a perfect candidate for wilderness.  I believe many consultants would have sent him to wilderness on the strength of the parent reporting prior, to the visit. 

This signifies why I believe the home visit is a crucial part of starting to work with any family.  It also signifies why I believe wilderness programs (of great value with many students)  should only  be used after careful thought and not for every kid who has acted out.  From the information parents supplied prior to the home visit, I, too thought wilderness was appropriate. 

This is where I differ from many of my colleagues.

This boy was as defiant toward his parents as they said he would be.  However, unlike most defiant teens, this one greeted me at the door with a welcoming smile.  It was immediately obvious that he lacked the pseudo-sophistication of most defiant 15-year-olds. There had never been a psychological evaluation.  His parents said he had difficulty making and holding friends in late elementary school.  He had been traumatized by having been placed in an emotional growth school with some very rough kids.  Several points of history and his in-person presentation suggested low processing speed. 

Wilderness programs work, in part, because they add to stress.  This boy did not need additional stress.  This boy has been verbally abusive to parents, but he is not a tough kid.  This boy appears to be clinically depressed.  While I don't think he has  Asperger's Syndrome in any form or to any degree, I can't absolutely rule out a very mild version of it,  and I strongly suspect Non Verbal Learning Disability.  Again, deviating from the practice of many of my colleagues, I see wilderness programs as potentially damaging to boys and girls with Asperger's Syndrome and many of those with Non Verbal Learning Disability.  I do see these kids in wilderness. I don't think they belong there.  I don't understand the logic of wilderness programs that accept these kids and I don't understand the logic of consultants who refer them.

To be clear, I have questioned staff people at a number of highly respected wilderness programs about why they admit students with Asperger's Syndrome.  Usually the first response is to tell me how carefully they address the needs of those individuals.  I thank them for the information, then point out that they did not answer my question.  After several rounds of that, these people have unanimously acknowledged that at best wilderness might benefit these kids but it is rarely if ever the best venue for treatment of them. Admitting these kids seems to be something the wilderness programs need to do so as not to lose referral business from sources who want to send Asperger's Syndrome kids to wilderness and will work with the programs that respond to their wants.

It sounds to me like the dynamic between out of control teens and their parents who find it difficult to set limits.

Back to this young man. I don't think he has Asperger's Syndrome, but I use the example to illustrate why we need to know the young person we are referring to wilderness and make sure that it is the preferred venue for the young person we are referring. 

This family turned out to be opposed to wilderness programs in general.  I did not push them on that because we are headed in a different direction, but I don't agree with that, either.  For the majority of out of control teens, a well run therapeutic and non-punitive wilderness program is the venue of choice, in my experience. 

My point is not to diminish the  value of wilderness programs.  My point is to communicate the need for discernment as to when they are of benefit and when they are not.  A rubber stamp reaction to send virtually every teenager who has behavioral or emotional problems to wilderness is not quite responsible. 

The corollary to this, is that I think therapeutic schools requiring wilderness specifically (as opposed to requiring SOME form of short term intensive assessment and intervention prior to admission) need to reconsider their policies.  I am particularly troubled by this among schools that are dealing primarily with a younger population.  These schools tell me how much easier it is to deal with these kids after wilderness.  Understood.  But is the policy for the good of the student or just to ease the job of the school? 

Tom Croke, Greensburg PA, December, 2007

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