Magic round the camp fire

SUMMER OF HOPE. By Ian Cotton. Simon amp; Schuster pound;16.99

Boys with autism find fun and happiness at a special holiday camp where each has his own young 'minder'. David Newnham reads an inspiring account

Where would you send a bunch of autistic children for their summer holidays? A therapy centre in California perhaps? Or a specially equipped and professionally staffed care facility in Devon?

Well, there's this rough-and-tumble scout camp in some woods just off the M4 where they'd be cared for night and day by ordinary kids from the East End of LondonI Why not give it a go? The place is called Camp Mohawk, and against all the odds and for reasons that are hard to pin down, the arrangement seems to work.

Ian Cotton, a freelance writer and former teacher (English, drama, history and, occasionally, weight-lifting in secondary schools in the late Sixties and early Seventies), stumbled on this unique set-up by accident. He was so intrigued by what he saw beneath the oaks and beeches of this magical spot that he asked Roy Howgate, Camp Mohawk's larger-than-life director, if he could spend a year behind the scenes of the project. Skip, as the big man is known, agreed, and the result is a book that almost restores your faith in human nature.

Or if not human nature, then children's nature. And if not all children, then that group of pre-adolescents whose inherent generosity and optimism have yet to be completely washed away by a tide of angry hormones.

Picture the scene. Camp Mohawk in Berkshire, complete with camp fire and canvas and an assortment of self-built huts for administration and catering, is the summer home of a scout troupe based at Beckton in the London borough of Newham. Skip and his team of leaders believe that "adults should be seen and not heard", and so the scouts, and more especially their six-week summer camp, embody the sort of child-centred attitudes to which most educators rarely pay more than lip service.

And into this working-class Summerhill, this little kingdom of 12-year-old boys, are delivered every year dozens more boys suffering from that most baffling and challenging of disabilities, autism.

Nor is it simply the case that the autistic kids are there as extra baggage. For each autistic boy is allocated to one of the scouts, and that scout is given absolute responsibility for his charge. With the aid of a second scout, whose job it is to fetch and carry, he must care for "his" boy day and night, like a parent. Like a mother, in fact. For the author isn't long at Camp Mohawk before he begins to recognise a tender, almost maternal quality in the attitude of the boy carers to their frequently challenging children.

"He's such a lovable little boy," is how one or other of the scouts refers to the autistic child with whom he has been paired and to whom he has clearly become devoted. And such is the depth of friendship that spontaneously develops that even the more aggravating autistic behaviours such as head-butting and biting and soiling of underpants at mealtimes are accepted without complaint from the scouts.

As the book unfolds, it comes as no surprise to learn that both sides benefit from such an arrangement. And when particularly unruly scouts are daringly paired with the more difficult autistic children, the results are astonishing and moving.

During the winter months, Cotton commutes to hard-up Beckton from his home west of London, and gets to know the East End boys and their families. And when summer comes, and Camp Mohawk begins to work its magic, he visits the homes of the autistic children and sees the truth of the adage, "children don't get autism, families do".

In unravelling the paradox of why a group of isolated and often fragile kids whose greatest need is for order, routine and peace, should not only survive but thrive in what appears to be a hostile environment, this beautifully written book offers countless insights into the nature of autism, and also into the theory and practice of education.

Along the way, Cotton examines the role of a charismatic leader such as Skip, and charts the struggle of his maverick organisation to continue functioning instinctively and spontaneously in a society which could itself be seen as increasingly autistic.

Next week in 'The TES': extract from 'Freaks, Geeks amp; Asperger Syndrome' by 13-year-old author Luke Jackson

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