How To Find a Summer Autism Program

summer camp
summer camp. yellow dog productions

You finally made it through the school year. Despite all the obstacles, your child did pretty well. You even saw him meet some of his IEP goals. But now summer is looming, and you have no clue what to do with him. As you probably know, while some typical kids (though by no means all!) do well with unstructured time, kids with autism often find it difficult. In fact, without a clear schedule and structure, many kids with autism become quite anxious.

And while you may have a local pool, beach, or other summer recreational option, just "hanging out" is rarely a great option for a child on the spectrum.

Ordinary summer camp looks pretty unlikely - after all, how many camp programs offer “social skills” along with “horseback riding?” Actually, you might be pleasantly surprised to discover that quite a few typical camps offer support for special needs kids -- and there are quite a few really good special needs camps springing up around the country.

The key to finding the right match for your child, however, is to be pro-active. Sure, your school district is supposed to help guide you through the process, but the reality is that they may know of very few options -- and they may not want to take the time to help you dig for ideas and resources.

If you're new to finding summer options for an autistic child, here’s how to get the process underway.

Difficulty: Average

Time Required: up to six months

Here's How:

  1. Start early. These days, even parents of typical kids start early in their quest for the perfect summer camp at the perfect price. For parents of autistic kids, the start should begin even earlier. The more you know about what's available, what it costs, and whether it's right for your child, the better equipped you'll be to make a smart choice.
  1. Find out what kind of Extended School Year (ESY) program is offered through your school district. ESY is a federally funded option for kids whose skills are likely to regress during extended breaks. If your child does qualify, he may be eligible for a free summer program . Some districts will supply a 1:1 aide so that your child can be included in a typical summer camp. Transportation is included.  Be aware, though, that not all ESY programs are particularly good. Many are located at schools, run for only a short period of time for just small portion of the day, and offer very limited experiences. It's also fairly common for ESY programs to lump kids from a variety of school year programs into a single summer program -- for better or for worse, depending upon your particular needs.
  2. Look into organizations like Easter Seals, Variety Club, and the YMCA. All have missions that focus on providing high quality programs to kids with all kinds of special needs. The Y, in particular, may be a good choice as it is often a very inclusive and supportive setting.  I was able to work with my local Y to add an autism support "bunk" to the typical daycamp, and, as a result, both my typical and autistic kids were able to attend together. Even if you don't have any interest in creating a program, you may find that the Y is already well-suited to supporting your child in a summer program.
  1. Surf the Web. Take a look at My Summer Camps, and Kids Camps for listings of special needs options. While some of these camps can be pricey, others are about the same cost as a nice private day camp in your area. If you do have the funds to pay for a sleep away camp (or your district or other sources can help), it may be a good option. Many parents and kids find that the right sleep away camp can be a terrific developmental experience.
  2. Ask around. Your teacher, principal, or parents of kids in your child’s class may have great ideas. Another good option: post a question to your local Autism Society of America’s listserve. Just be aware that the fact that a neighbor's child just loved a particular camp doesn't necessarily mean the camp is right for your child. There are many factors that go into matching a child with autism to a summer camp or program.
  3. Check newspapers. Special “parenting” magazines in many metropolitan areas create camp directories. These are usually published in early winter. Many include listings for camps that cater to kids with special needs.


  1. All YMCA's offer financial aid to families in need. Be sure to ask about financial aid if you need it.
  2. Summer is an especially tough time for families with autistic kids. For most of our kids, unstructured time isn’t relaxing - it’s overwhelming. That’s why a summer program is so critical. Don’t let June roll around before you have a solid plan in place - and plenty of photos of your summer available to create that all-important visual planner.

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