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Ethan 1

Ethan's autism added an extra challenge to him joining Cubs. But thanks to the unwavering support of his mum and Akela, he earned his Chief Scout's Award.

‘I had a lot of doubters, but you have to give young people chances,’ says Steph Whittaker, Akela at 3rd South West Cheshire Cubs. He’s thinking back to a year ago when he was approached by Ethan's mother, Paula. Ethan has Asperger’s Syndrome. ‘I’m on the autistic spectrum myself,’ he continues. ‘We weren’t sure how he’d cope in Cubs, but we’ve supported him to join in and we’ve surprised a lot of people with what we’ve achieved.’ 

For Paula, helping Ethan to get the support he needs has been a long, hard road. ‘I started trying to get him diagnosed from the age of two,’ she explains. ‘It took six years. I felt like it was my fault as a parent, and there were times I wanted to stop fighting, but I had to go on. Ethan also has Tourette’s syndrome and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). His learning and emotional age is about half of his physical age.’ 

These factors can make Ethan’s behaviour unpredictable. ‘If you ask him what he thinks of you, he’ll tell you,’ Paula continues. ‘It can get him into trouble. His school has suspended him on several occasions because of the tics caused by his Tourette’s. He can’t read faces or body language either, and he takes sarcasm literally.’

Paula was worried about how Ethan would fit in at Cubs, but decided to give it a go after the Group Scout Leader invited him to try it. ‘The beginning was a struggle,’ Aleka Steph says frankly. ‘The other Cubs needed to get used to Ethan, and he had to get used to us. Paula helped us understand Ethan’s needs, like that strict boundaries are easier for him to understand with his autism, and then it really started to work.’ Paula stayed with Ethan during those first sessions, and then, as they settled into a routine, she took on a leadership role within the section.

‘One turning point was his first camp,’ Steph continues. ‘People said that if we weren’t sure how he’d react to a new environment, away from home for the first time, then we shouldn’t take him on camp. I told them I wasn’t going to do that to anyone, especially not a child with a disability.’ The leadership team made sure Ethan knew what was happening, and that his Six would support him. Paula waved him off and then went home and sat by the phone all weekend, waiting for the call that never came.

‘People didn’t even think he’d last hours, but he stayed for the whole weekend,’ Steph says. ‘When I picked him up from camp and found out he’d been the least trouble of the lot, that’s when I knew he could do it,’ says Paula with real pride. 

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With Ethan clearly enjoying Cubs and the new challenges it posed him, Steph wondered whether Ethan could earn his Chief Scout’s Silver Award. ‘It takes a lot of merit and hard work to earn the CSA,’ says Steph. I thought it would be tough for Ethan, but it was just a case of giving him the right set of opportunities.’

For his Team Leader Challenge Award, Ethan learned origami for around seven weeks, and taught the skill to his Six. ‘For him to work on it for that long was a miracle – usually it’s hard for him to focus on something for an hour,’ Paula says.

Over time, the Challenge Awards began to stack up, as did some very important social skills. ‘In the last six months, he’s learned to say sorry and to show it,’ Paula says. ‘And he’s tried so much stuff that’s outside his safety net – being on public transport and in crowds, as well as all the activities. He’s visibly calmer than usual the morning after Cubs. I’m watching him develop in more ways than anyone could have predicted, and that makes me proud as a mum and a leader.’ 

Ethan was awarded his Chief Scout’s Award by GSL Mike Lightfoot in a special presentation that represented his remarkable achievement. ‘To see how far Ethan has come is an amazing feeing and accomplishment,’ Steph says. ‘I’m very proud, and I’m grateful to Ethan: he’s improved me as a leader, he’s made me have to think on my feet and make decisions, and he’s taught me things about myself and my skills.’

For Steph, having Ethan in the Pack has only been a positive thing. ‘Leaders might feel worried about not having the skills to fully support a young person with autism or a disability, but if you’re patient and you ask for the right help, you’ll find a way,’ he says. ‘It isn’t a burden. Ethan enriches our Group in so many ways.’

Support is available for leaders who would like more information about autism, and guidance for working in partnership with parents and carers.

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