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Mendo Lake Family Life

A Chance to Fly

By Ashley Talmadge

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…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 Kelly Kunsek, a seasoned director of a camp that 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 him or herself 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. 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.”

By following a few simple guidelines, you and your special needs child can reap the rewards of summer camp.

Decide what you want.

Is your child ready for overnight camp? Or would a day camp suit her needs? Inclusive camps make accommodations that allow kids with special needs to participate in activities with typical peers. Disability-specific camps hire staff trained to meet unique needs—visual impairment, autism, diabetes, and 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 that 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 American Camp Association (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 turnover 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 them?

Prepare your kids.

Talk about camp and the activities they will get to try. Ask what they’re looking forward to, as well as what makes them 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.