Choosing the right summer camp experience for our children with special needs can be daunting. The potential rewards, however, are well worth the extra effort. Greater self-esteem, improved self-confidence and independence, new skills, socialization opportunities, new friendships and just plain fun are ready for your child when you are. Here are seven basic keys to help make the summer camp experience great for everyone.
Prepare yourself. It is important to balance the family’s needs with your child’s needs. Working parents might need ongoing care throughout the summer. Things to consider include whether you want a day or sleep-away camp, whether you want a camp oriented toward academics or recreation, and what fits into your budget. Are you looking for an intensive behavioral program with similarly challenged campers, or one that fosters socialization with typically developing peers? Family camps such as Kris’ Camp (www.kriscamp.org) in Tallahassee, Fla. and Camp Ohr Lanu (www.ramah.org) in Ojai provide retreats where the entire family can learn and grow together.
Know your child’s challenges. Summer can be a perfect time for your child to enjoy fun, individualized instruction in areas that they may have difficulty with. If your child has an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) you can request ESY (Extended School Year) to focus on academic goals through your local school district. Private programs such as Total Education Solutions (www.tesidea.com) in South Pasadena offer handwriting and speech and language programs. Kids Like Me at The Help Group (www.thehelpgroup.org) foster socialization and communication in a fun, creative way.
Appreciate your child’s strengths and preferred interests. Does your child enjoy sports and recreation? Leaps n Boundz (www.leapsnboundz.com) in L.A. provides programs with skilled staff. Our son is adventurous, physical, and loves the outdoors, so Extreme Sports Camp was a perfect fit for him.
Does your child enjoy the arts? The Miracle Project (www.themiracleproject.org) offers fully inclusive summer camps throughout Los Angeles. This year, The Miracle Project is partnering with Cal State Northridge’s Teenage Drama Workshop for a five-week, fully inclusive theater program, “Joining the Spectrum.” Teens with and without disabilities will share creative experiences in music, dance, drama, filmmaking, costume and set design, and then write and perform an original play.
Is your child a budding scientist? The California Science Center (www.californiasciencecenter.org) has programs with extended care until 5 p.m. Mad Science Camp (www.madscience.org) also welcomes campers with special needs at multiple locations. If your child needs one-on-one support to attend these programs, contact your local regional center. They might be able to provide support.
Prepare the camp. Once you’ve narrowed your choices, contact camp administrators to discuss their programs and the accommodations they are able to make. Share as much information about your child as you can. Don’t hold out and think, this time my child is going to fit right in so I won’t tell them anything. This actually creates a greater risk for your child to fail. I used to write out everything about my son – his likes, dislikes, dietary restrictions, behaviors, and what his behaviors meant as communication. Find out the training level of the camp staff and how prepared they are for your child’s specific needs.
Remember, you are the expert on your child. You must feel comfortable to hand over the reins to summer camp staff. A great way to do this is to create an easily understandable, short notebook that distills your expert knowledge of your child for camp staff to reference. Besides the basics – contact information, trusted family members, doctors, and specific detailed medical information – the notebook should include information on your child’s specific needs. Be explicit in describing your child’s emotional, physical, or sensory challenges, learning styles, and overall individual differences. What’s “fun” for one child might feel assaulting for another. Some camps love to cheer, sing loud, clap, etc. This uproarious expression can actually be painful for our son, who has extreme sound sensitivity. Josh Taff, director of Etta’s Camp Avraham Moshe (www.etta.org), instructed his staff to use the American Sign Language hand signal for applause whenever my son succeeded.
Stephen Hinkle, a San Diego-based special-needs advocate who has autism, recommends that you get enough information to feel confident in your decision that the camp directors, staff, and other children are open, receptive, and understanding of your child’s needs. Some camps offer inclusion specialists. If your child has one-on-one behavioral support in school, she or he will likely require the same support in camp.
Prepare your child. Many children with special needs have challenges with transitions and novel situations. When I run camps, I offer the opportunity for families to visit the camp well before other campers arrive, giving them opportunity to meet the staff, see the environment, and ask questions. If this is not possible at the camp you have chosen, visit the camp through video and photos online with your child to build excitement.
Taking “baby steps” might be the best approach to entering the summer camp world, especially if you are considering a sleep-away camp. The directors of Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu (www.campjcashalom.com) opened their arms to our family and to this idea. First, our son went to camp for one day. Next, he stayed two nights with a one-on-one aide, then one week, and then two! Now our son can attend certain sleep-away camps such as Camp Ramah, which has support, even without his own one-on-one aide.
Once you’ve a chosen camp, put it on a visual calendar for you and your child to reference. Cross off the days on the calendar as camp approaches and continue to build enthusiasm. Shop together with your child for camp necessities: hats, sunscreen, sandals, clothes, etc.
Pack well. The Sharpie is your friend. Label and list, and you will greatly increase your odds of having all things sent with your child to camp return with your child. Along with the items on the packing lists provided by camps, be sure to include items your child might need specifically for added comfort. For example, for sleep-away camp you might want to include special pillows, weighted-blankets or favorite pajamas. I suggest not including favorite toys, as the potential for loss, breakage, and a subsequent meltdown is high. Your child’s favorite super-hero friend should be kept safe at home. A little photo flipbook of home, family and pets can be comforting and can help with separation anxiety.
Let go! You’ve done all you can, and a darn good job of it. Now it’s time to send your camper off with a smile of love and confidence that you know they are going to have a great time and come back safe and sound, and a little more grown up.
Elaine Hall, ‘Coach E,’ is a motivational speaker, inclusion activist, and founder of The Miracle Project. She was profiled in the HBO film, AUTISM: The Musical, is the author of Now I See the Moon and co-author of Seven Keys to Unlock Autism: Making Miracles in the Classroom. Elaine consults with parents, professionals, religious institutions, and camps to help foster inclusion. Jeff Frymer is a licensed marriage and family therapist. He has provided support for families of children with special needs for the past 15 years. Jeff and Elaine are the proud parents of an awesome young adult with autism, who loves exploring the outdoors and who has grown exponentially from his camp experiences.