Sending a child to summer camp for the first time can make any parent nervous. But worries are often magnified for parents of kids with special needs. Images of sunlit lakes and carefree campers are often trumped by concerns about behavior, communication, and physical safety. Stacy De La O, whose daughter has high functioning autism, remembers the weeks leading up to Fia’s first overnight camp experience as a 10-year-old. “I was a wreck!” she admits. “But we prepared well, and in the end I trusted the counselors at Blue Compass to take care of her.”
Children with physical, cognitive, or medical challenges often have few opportunities to navigate the world without a parent close by. Kids with special needs benefit from summer camp in two major ways, according to seasoned camp director Kelly Kunsek of Camp Paivika, a program serving children with physical and developmental disabilities. “Time away from families increases their independence,” she says. “And as they meet other campers, their social connections expand.” Parents benefit too. After a positive camp experience, a parent is both more aware of what a child can do for himself, and more comfortable allowing others to assist when needed.
Research indicates there are other benefits. Because many camps cater to specific needs, children can learn new social, physical, academic, or self-care skills. Interacting with others who share similar challenges—whether dietary, physical, or cognitive—lets a child’s self-esteem and confidence blossom. And for some kids, camp provides a welcome respite from routine-packed schedules and visits to therapists.
De La O’s worries evaporated when she picked Fia up after the session. “I could just see in her face that she’d had a great time.” That was just the beginning, and Fia continues to have wonderful camp experiences each summer.
Experts say that by planning well and following a few simple guidelines, you and your special needs child can reap the rewards of summer camp.
Decide what you want.
Camps come in all flavors. In fact, the American Camp Association (ACA) states that “47 percent of camps offer specialized programs for individuals with disabilities.” Is your child ready for overnight camp? Or would a day camp suit her needs? Inclusive camps allow special needs kids to participate in activities with typical peers by making accommodations. Disability-specific camps hire staff trained to meet unique needs—visual impairment, autism, diabetes, severe allergies. Traditional camps offer tried-and-true activities like swimming, boating, crafts, and campfires. Specialty camps may focus on technology, sports, or the arts. Therapeutic camps offer interventions targeting speech/language, behavioral, and/or physical therapy goals. And combinations abound.
Do your research.
De La O says the parents at her daughter’s school “exchange information to find the best camps and programs for our kids.” Recommendations from teachers and service providers who know your child are also valuable. Look at camp materials online, read brochures, and watch videos. Has the camp been accredited by the ACA, or received recognition from a reputable organization? Make sure the camp’s philosophy is a match for your family. Would your child do better in a competitive or cooperative atmosphere? Are you looking for a specific religious affiliation? Look at the physical layout of the camp and notice any potential problems.
Ask questions and get comfortable.
Speak with the director and counselors who will be working with your child. Questions include: What is the staff-to-camper ratio? What training do counselors receive? What is the turn-over rate for staff? (Camps where staff members return summer after summer tend to offer more stability and consistency.) Is there medical staff on site 24/7, and where is the nearest hospital? How are special diets handled? How will I communicate with my child during the session? How are behavioral issues addressed? Be forthright and honest in describing your child’s challenges. Does the staff seem willing and competent to handle these specific issues?
Prepare your child.
Talk about camp and the activities he’ll get to try. Ask what he’s looking forward to, as well as what makes him nervous. Role playing potential social situations helps some kids feel more confident. Before attending overnight camp, Kunsek suggests trying a sleepover with a friend or family member. In addition, she says, “Go to the open house event if possible. It’s a good way for a child to become familiar with the setting and the staff, and to meet other campers.” If a family can’t attend the open house, Kunsek encourages scheduling a tour.
Think about funding.
Camps can be expensive, but families of children with special needs have options if they plan ahead. Many camps offer full and partial scholarships. Some churches and fraternal organizations (e.g. Lions Club, Rotary Club) will sponsor a child at a specific camp. If there is a proven need for continued education services over the summer, some school districts will pay for a camp that targets your child’s IEP goals. And if your child is receiving therapeutic interventions at camp, your medical insurance may cover some of the cost.
Ashley Talmadge is a freelance writer and mother of two boys. She enjoys writing about the many facets of parenthood, and her articles have appeared in dozens of parenting publications throughout the U.S. and Canada.