Guiding Scouts who are neurodivergent through their Eagle Scout service project

Zeke, an Eagle Scout, with his mom Gloria
Zeke, with his mom Gloria. Photo courtesy of Gloria Wells

The process of achieving the Eagle Scout rank is rigorous for any Scout. It is also designed so accommodations can be made for Scouts with disabilities or special needs. Guiding Scouts who are neurodivergent can be done in a way that increases the Scout’s chances of completing the task without compromising the integrity of that process.

I recently heard from Gloria Wells, a parent and leader from Troop 240 in Gray, Tennessee. Wells is the parent of a Scout on the autism spectrum. She wanted to share what she has learned, not only by helping her own son, but also by observing other Scouts in her troop.

She notes that her experience may be useful to parents of Scouts with challenges such as sensory processing disorder, auditory processing disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

The key, writes Wells, is to take the necessary steps to keep your Scout from feeling overwhelmed without taking over.

“Not taking over is key!” she writes. “Parents, hear this: Your job is to set up your child to succeed on their own. This is a pivotal moment for them. If you take over, they will understand that you thought they couldn’t do it.

“There is more at stake here than a rank. If you are the one communicating with the beneficiary, making lists of materials and communicating with the troop about the work to be done, you need to take a step back and let your child lead.”

Read Wells’ tips below, click here to learn more about serving Scouts with disabilities, and click here for the BSA’ inclusion toolkit.

Choose the right beneficiary

The Eagle Scout service project is a task that may seem particularly overwhelming to your child. You know by now that your Aspie (Editor’s note: “Aspie” is a term used for those on the milder end of the autism spectrum; formerly called Asperger’s Syndrome.) is not pleasant when overwhelmed. Between your expertise at parenting your child and a few tips specifically related to the Eagle project, properly guiding Scouts who are neurodivergent can set your child up to succeed.

First, it’s time to choose a project beneficiary. I highly recommend that you encourage your Scout to choose a beneficiary that has experience working directly with special-needs children, or a church or organization where those in charge already know your child. Doing so removes the potential barrier of having to explain your child’s struggles to the beneficiary. For example, your Scout could choose to build a play area for a group that provides respite care for families of children with special needs. That group’s representative would probably understand that your Scout may not make direct eye contact and won’t perceive that as rude.

You’ll also want your child to consider their sensory challenges when choosing a project. If your Scout is extremely sensitive to smells, they will struggle immensely if they choose a project that requires that they paint inside. If your Scout can’t stand to wear work gloves, they shouldn’t pick a project that will require them. Also consider that this is a leadership project and not every facet must be done by the Scout. It is possible they could delegate a task they are unable to do themselves due to sensory challenges. However, they are ultimately responsible for making sure it gets done.

Break the planning process down into smaller steps

Now that they’ve chosen an organization and project, it’s time to proceed with the planning. When considering all the added challenges of Asperger’s, it is particularly important to approach this project step by step, have a plan and stay on top of things so as not to get overwhelmed in the process. For time management, get your child a paper wall calendar and put it up near where they will be working.

Sit together and make some goals for when each step should be accomplished. Circle those dates, mark where you are now, and mount the calendar in a visible spot by the workstation. Set aside time daily or weekly for your Scout to work toward the next step. Do your best to provide the environment they need to work. If you have to send siblings outside, turn off the radio, or take the battery out of a ticking clock for your child to work, then do it.

It is not required to type out the paperwork. However, handwritten paperwork can be lost, and many Aspies cannot write legibly. Since they often do better with something they can touch, it may help your Scout if you help them create a paper chart they can touch to track their progress. I recommend writing down the steps on color-coded sticky notes and putting them on a paper or poster. That way, your Scout can move or remove sticky notes as tasks are completed and see and feel their progress. The tactile experience of something as simple as moving a sticky note can help a Scout with Asperger’s to see their progress and not feel so overwhelmed.

A poster board with sticky notes is helpful in guiding a Scout with neurodivergent issues
If multi-colored notes overwhelm your Scout, stick to one color, notes Wells. Photo courtesy of Gloria Wells

Do a dress rehearsal

Guiding Scouts who are neurodivergent through the planning portion of the project could include a walkthrough of the project. Set up a time with your beneficiary to take your Scout to the worksite and let them visualize everything happening. Actually stand there and pretend to do the work.

“Okay, so I’m sanding this bench. Where is my power source? How many feet of extension cords do I need?”

“Now I’m painting this sign. Do I need anything? A drop cloth? Will I need paintbrushes for the different colors of paint, or will I have a place to clean brushes?”

It is one thing to picture the project while sitting at a desk filling out the plan, but it’s entirely different to walk through the site. There, your Scout can touch and feel where the work will be done. This will help you both think of details that may not have occurred to you at a desk. Having a chance to visualize the process and plan out every detail will help keep them from being overwhelmed when the big day comes, everyone is staring at them waiting for instructions, and your Scout realizes they didn’t tell their helpers to bring gloves. Planning every detail prevents meltdowns.

On the workday, stand back and let your child lead. Have them assign you a task and stick to it. Be available to your Scout for consulting. Always refer helpers’ questions to your Scout. Be Prepared to let things go wrong and let your child learn. You’re there as a coach and cheerleader. You must keep yourself from taking over, even if you have to let go of your own perfectionism.

Apply the same process to completing the paperwork

When the task is complete, there’s just the review paperwork left. It’s not nearly as overwhelming, but the basic idea of guiding Scouts who are neurodivergent still applies: environment, time management and seeing how much progress has been made. Just keep reminding them that they’re almost done. Have your Scout download the “Life to Eagle Checklist” and follow the steps. When the paperwork and rank application are complete, communicate with the council ahead of time if any accommodations are needed for the upcoming board of review.

The rank of Eagle Scout is a prestigious honor that is attainable for non-neurotypical Scouts. As a parent of a Scout with Asperger’s you are in the exciting position to set them up to succeed. By helping them make a concrete checklist of goals, keeping their differences in mind when helping them choose a project, and offering support and understanding, you can coach from the sidelines as they reach this momentous goal. The benefits of this experience will extend far beyond just earning a rank. Your Scout will launch into adulthood knowing they can accomplish great things if they consider their challenges, make a plan and stick to it.

About Aaron Derr 448 Articles
Aaron Derr is the senior editor of Scout Life and Scouting magazines, and also a former Cubmaster and Scouts BSA volunteer.