Choosing a Summer Camp for Your Child with Special Needs
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Top 10 tips for ensuring that camp is a positive experience
Don’t you wish you could go to some of the summer camps that are available to our kids? When I was a kid, there was just the outdoor kind with leather crafts, canoe tipping, and flashlight hikes (though as I write that, I think it sounds pretty good!).
Nowadays, kids can “camp” with horses, Legos, computers, and theater, plus they can play tennis, swim, climb, surf, and dance. There are day camps, weeklong camps, even out-of-state camps. There are also camps for specific special needs such as SOAR summer camps for kids with learning disabilities and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Easter Seals for kids with physical or intellectual disabilities, or local camps for kids with traumatic brain injuries or mental-health issues.
Having all those choices doesn’t mean that each one is right for our kids, especially those who might struggle with impulsivity, hyperactivity, or expected social skills. We want to give our kids with ADHD, autism, and other special needs a chance to experience camp, along with a sense of safety and inclusion.
Though your child might enjoy time with peers who have the same issues, she may really want to learn to sail or do computer animation or just spend days with other kids who adore robotics or Minecraft. During the school year, kids have few choices and lots of expectations—summer camps can be a time to indulge a passion or interest.
Here are my top 10 tips for choosing a summer camp for a child, tween, or teen with special needs. You also may want to visit the camps you are considering (and take pictures if you do). Or make a list of pros and cons to help with the selection process. Choosing a camp can be fun!
1. Your child’s interests. Is your child interested in a sleepaway camp, or is a day camp, in which much of the routine is the same, a better option? Talk to your child about what he would like to do, and use that information to start a list of camp options.
2. Disclosing your child’s disability. For a child or tween who is still maturing and learning to self-regulate, you will need to share strategies with the camp counselors on how to work with your child. Don’t bombard them with pages of concerns. Do focus on ways to handle things if there is a meltdown.
3. Discipline. How the camp deals with discipline is especially important for sleepaway camps, where issues are more likely to arise. Have a frank conversation with the camp director before you arrive.
4. Ratio. While you are talking to the director, ask about the ratio of campers to counselors as well as staff experience. Lots of our kids get into mischief when they are unsupervised. You want to be sure there are assigned counselors who are tracking them and allowing breaks, etc.
5. Training. Another question for the director is about the training the staff gets—does the camp require background checks, training in first aid/CPR, activity training (such as using climbing equipment or driving a boat for waterskiing)? It’s a good sign when the camp has a lot of counselors who are returning each summer, too.
6. Communication plan. Ask how you can check in with your child during the day or week. Many camps ban cell phones during camp. If that is the case, how will the camp let you know how things are going?
7. Accommodations. Ask about sleeping arrangements, how medications are handled, accessibility, diet options, bathrooms, showers, etc. The more you know, the better you can prepare your child. That will keep both your and her anxiety levels down.
8. Don’t rescue. Don’t tell your kid you will come get him if he is homesick. By telling him that he might not be able to handle the camp, you are basically telling him that he isn’t capable of going to camp. Instead, focus on what activities he will be doing and how to navigate things such as showers and new foods. Expect him to be fine!
9. Cost. As a Solo Mom, you may need to stretch your summer dollars to get the most coverage. Ask about scholarships. If the camps you are considering don’t have one, perhaps they can refer you to a Rotary Club, an Elks Club, or other charitable organizations. Recreation centers usually have an option for families who qualify for free and/or reduced lunch. Just ask!
10. Worst-case scenario. Prepare yourself for the worst-case scenario. Are you most worried about her harming herself or others? Or that she will just cry and not eat and beg to come home? Some kids do well with social stories where you write up a step-by-step story of how the days will go. Some kids do well with practicing things such as sleeping in a sleeping bag, using earplugs at night, or having scripted statements ready, such as “I need a few minutes,” or “I am not comfortable with that; is there another option?” or “It’s hard for me to remember everything; can you write that down?”
We all want summer camp to be a positive experience, and we have to be realistic. This is one of those times when we need to separate our agendas from our child’s needs and desires. Pushing a bit is OK, but forcing is not. Focus on what your child can and will do. He may surprise you. Happy camping!
Anna Stewart is ESME’s Kids with Special Needs Resource Guide and the Solo Mom of a daughter and two sons on the brink of adulthood. She’s a champion for the rights of people living with disabilities and those who love them.
Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.