I work at a camp run by the nature center in a large local nature reservation. Each camp is for three hours, either in the morning or afternoon. Optimally, there is a naturalist leading the camp, an assistant naturalist, and a volunteer, for 14 kids. I'm an assistant naturalist; this week I'm working with preschoolers (aged 4-5 years).

The volunteer I have is a teenager about the same age as me (18-ish). This is his second week here, and he's on a camp in the morning and one in the afternoon. Both I and the naturalist for this camp noticed that while he's extraordinarily helpful when asked to do a task, he lacks direction on his own. For instance, if I'm setting up for a craft, he often won't act unless explicitly asked to do so (at which point he does whatever he's told, and does it well with no complaints). He does know what things need to be done, in general; he learned the process quickly after his first week. This was a bit puzzling for me at first.

Tasks he would help with or do include:

  • Setting up for crafts
  • Reading to campers during free time
  • Walking in the middle of the line (instead of the back, where I am) during hikes, so someone can be right with the kids
  • Participating a bit when we do games

This afternoon, we learned from a coworker that this volunteer has mild autism, and while he's quite high-functioning, this is a behavioral quirk of his related to his autism. We're not sure how aware he is of this particular symptom. I'm now quite sympathetic to his plight.

A preschool camp is always difficult, even if you're experienced, and we know that the volunteer might have gotten more than he bargained for. However, we need all three of us to work as a team for the camp to go as well as it should. Therefore, we want him to be a bit more independent. He knows the procedures; we need to get him to apply them without explicitly asking him each time.

How can we tell the volunteer that he needs to be a little more independent when doing these tasks? I do want to be nice if possible - after all, he volunteered to sacrifice his own time and take a huge step out of his comfort zone - but I also need him to do what is required.

I should add that I also understand if this is something the volunteer may not be able to do. If that's the case, I certainly don't want to pressure him too much.

  • 3
    I know this question is long, but I didn't want to leave out any important details. Please let me know if you have any suggestions for making it more concise.
    – HDE 226868
    Jul 17, 2017 at 21:29
  • Hm. I don't know what to tell you, but could you kick this up to the naturalist in charge, or the camp supervisor/boss/whatever? Whatever is said may have more weight if it comes from the people in charge. This also relieves you of an obligation to say anything. (I am not sure why saying anything would be your job, actually. Are you "in charge" of this volunteer?)
    – Shokhet
    Jul 17, 2017 at 23:01
  • 1
    @Shokhet Both I and the naturalist are directly in charge of the volunteer. My asking this question is in part the result of a conversation between the two of us and the person one level up, who brought the volunteer's condition to our attention. We're still trying to decide who, if anyone, should talk to him. I've interacted with him the most, which is why we're considering that I should talk to him. However, that's not finalized.
    – HDE 226868
    Jul 17, 2017 at 23:35
  • Just a note - "mild autism" and "high-functioning" aren't really appropriate terms to use any more. Just "he has autism" is sufficient, there's no need to separate us like that. You can be more symptom-specific if the situation warrants it, e.g. "he is non-verbal" if you're talking about communication issues, or "he struggles with emotional regulation" if you're talking about a reaction to an event, etc.
    – Groggo
    Jan 4, 2018 at 16:13

3 Answers 3


With almost all ASD (autism spectrum disorders) social skills are usually underdeveloped. All other "conditions" can vary from severe lack of ability to normal functioning. In the so-called high-functioning cases (no longer an employed term in the official cannon of the American Psychiatric Association), there may only be one or two "symptoms" beyond the lack of social skills. In any case, the social skills are likely the biggest part of the issue here. The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) lists Autism Spectrum Disorder classification, reproduced in PDF format from Person Clinical, and an expanded version is available from Washington University. Either version is well worth your time to read.

They don't naturally read social cues and might be stressed out by social situations. You volunteer seems to be well versed in "how" to perform the things you have asked him to do, yet doesn't realise "when" to do them. A common problem with ASD is the ritualisation of behaviours. A high-functioning person may recognise that, and attempt to control it, to avoid unwanted attention. This creates a difficulty when changing between activities as well as planning and organising. Now you are wanting him to understand and repeat a pattern of behaviour, or a ritual, and he is unsure what to do: break the ritual to avoid the attention, or follow the ritual as told.

The best you can do is learn, by observation, what his limits are and work within them. From the described behaviour, it seems that you can rely on him to do an assigned task - a single task - well, but not a list of tasks or an agenda. Don't expect him to do what he cannot. It may require more supervisory efforts from you, or planning differently, to utilise his help, but well worth it.

Something often overlooked is the attention to detail that ASD people commonly have. Frequently it borders on perfectionism. (OCD is often a co-diagnosis to ASD.) This detailed attention can be useful, in that such individuals may notice things that others miss. The social clues of posture and expression may mean nothing to him, but a disturbed leaf could provide volumes of information to him. If you find that your volunteer has this gift it can be useful for your in the naturist environment. He may spot animals or plants others would miss. One possible symptom of ASD is not spontaneously showing, bringing, or pointing out objects of interest. You can however eliminate the spontaneous part by "asking" him to show you something when he finds it.

BTW, it seems that your volunteer could have what was formerly called Asperger's Disorder, which was listed in the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) and is now absorbed into the redefined ASD in the DSM-5. Resources that you can find on Asperger's may also be of help.

  • What do you mean by "ritualization of behaviors"?
    – traisjames
    Aug 21, 2017 at 6:41

This may sound trite, but is he aware that you want him to engage in these behaviors automatically? You may need to simply make things very explicit. Create a short written plan for the day, and for each step, outline what you would expect him to specifically do.

Activity 1 Set up for Arts and Crafts

__: Lay out materials on the tables, then ask for further instructions

Activity 2 Greet the children as they walk in

__: stand by the tables and help the kids to get seated

Activity 3 Clean up from A&C

__: bring the garbage pail by each table. Sing the clean up song with us.

Activity 4 Line up the kids

__: Just watch and make sure that no kids need help

Activity 5 Hike

__: Stand in the middle of the line... (etc)

Having such a plan will allow him to be sure that he is doing what is needed and to move around with more autonomy.


I have autism, and I can completely see myself do this. I don't think this is impossible to fix.

From your perspective, it takes time to ask him to do things, and you might forget it, so asking is a burden. But he is probably not even seeing this, because seeing this requires him imagining how you are feeling, and that is quite difficult if you're autistic. He probably thinks that you only want him to do the things he asked, just when you ask him, and not earlier.

So I think that this will be fixed quite easily if you just ask him to start doing specific things on his own. Say something like: "From now on, if you see that I'm setting up for a craft, you should start X" or "From now on, after X happened, you should start preparing Y." The pattern of "when X happens, do Y" is important, because it gives him a specific rule, and he doesn't need to plan to execute that rule. Just asking him to take more initiative in general is unlikely to work, because he probably doesn't even have the planning skills to do so.

This will not really fix his issue with planning and starting things on his own, but that is not your job (and fixing that is very, very difficult). However, this will probably update his mental rules, so that he now starts a task at the moment you specified. Don't expect him to deal with unexpected things, or plan on his own, even after you ask this. If X doesn't happen, but it is logical to you that Y still needs to be done, you will still need to ask him.

If this doesn't work, he might have more severe problems with planning. In that case, a schedule like in Ben I.'s answer might be better. Don't expect him to do anything that is not on the schedule on his own though, no matter how logical it may be to you that it needs to be done.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.