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Camp for kids with Special Needs

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, 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 to take care of her.”

Children with physical, cognitive, or medical challenges often don’t get many opportunities to navigate the world without a parent close by. Kids, with special needs, benefit from summer camp in two major ways, according to Cynthia Adkins, Director of TIRR Foundation/Moran Camp Xtreme is a program of TIRR Foundation which serves 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 lets a child’s self-esteem and confidence blossom”, says Adkins. And for some kids, camp provides a welcome respite from routine-packed schedules and visits to therapists.

Stacy’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.” And that was just the beginning, as Fia continues to have wonderful camp experiences each summer.

Experts, like Adkins, 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

When deciding about camp, get recommendations from teachers and service providers who know your child is 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, you may want to arrange a sleepover with a friend or family member. In addition, 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, maybe schedule a tour, in person or online.

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) may 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 across the U.S. and Canada.