Summer camp with a difference

Recently I watched a documentary about a group of 5 UK teenagers who went away to a Summer Camp in the US.

I remember Charlie Brown used to go away to summer camp. I always thought it was a strange idea; one of those very American institutions that Americans probably assume exist everywhere, like college fraternities and drive-through restaurants.

This particular summer camp was more of an institution than usual, though: it’s a camp for children who suffer from Tourette Syndrome, often as well as OCD and ADHD.

Jessica was closest to the stereotype of what Tourette Syndrome involves. An attractive brunette girl, her main tic seems to be an insatiable desire to suddenly shout out the one thing that she knows she absolutely mustn’t say. As soon as she thinks the unthinkable, the pressure to shout it builds up until it’s unbearable.

The documentary showed her going shopping with her mother. As they neared the checkout, Jessica saw the girl behind the cash register, and shouted “Nigger!” Apparently the girl knew Jessica and wasn’t fazed by it. Everyone continued to behave as if nothing unusual had happened—which is apparently the best thing to do, as stress just makes the tics more frequent. Still, perhaps life was easier before Jessica started listening to rap music…

Later, the documentary team interviewed the family about life with TS. Jessica twitched and flipped off the camera. As her mother continued speaking, she shouted what sounded like “Bored!”, then looked around as if wondering who had just said it.

I imagine that getting 5 teenagers with Tourette Syndrome across the Atlantic by airplane is a bit of a challenge, particularly when one of them feels the need to shout “Bomb!” periodically. She also has a thing about opening car doors, particularly when the car is moving fast, so I imagine they chose not to seat her in an exit row.

According to the show, none of the kids from the UK had spent time with other TS sufferers before. When they found themselves surrounded by nearly 30 others, some found it a bit hard to deal with. In particular, there was a lot of friction between Jessica and one of the other girls. As if a tendency to shout “Fatty!” and “Slut!” at other girls wasn’t enough of a social disadvantage, the show revealed that Jessica also suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome, and seemingly has limited understanding of the hurt that her outbursts can cause.

It’s not all shouting, though. One of the boys at the camp had two major physical tics: he constantly shrugged his shoulders, even while asleep; and he constantly sniffed. Innocuous stuff, bizarre more than disturbing, but imagine doing it non-stop for a decade or two.

Yes, it can be funny—the kids themselves were often shown laughing about it. Until, that is, one boy suddenly shouted out “Twin towers!” in the middle of a crowded Chicago mall. He later said he saw someone staring intently at him, though it’s hard to say whether someone really wanted to smack him in the face, or if he just interpeted things that way out of shame and embarassment.

Overall, the program wasn’t as exploitative as you might think, though Jessica thinks it portrayed her unfairly. While there were cheap laughs, it was also thought provoking. We’ve all been in situations where there was something we were conscious that we mustn’t mention; imagine the nightmare if you had to say it. Imagine trying to shave when your arm keeps twitching, or trying to survive at school when you keep making animal-like noises during classes.